Interviewing Greek developers: James Spanos & Konstantinos Dimopoulos

Παρασκευή, 27 Μαΐου 2016, Συντάκτης Dream Specialist, Fallen Angel

Interviewing Greek developers: James Spanos & Konstantinos Dimopoulos

Thank you for having this interview with us. We are quite interested in finding out how it is for a Greek person to work with developers abroad either on indie or triple-A productions, especially nowadays. So, should we start by introducing you to our readers? Would you like to tell us a thing or two about yourselves?

James Spanos [JS]: I’m James, James Spanos. I live in Greece, on the island of Chios, in my mother’s hometown village called Curunia. I was born and raised in Athens, where I’ve lived for over 15 years. There I attended school and graduated from the university as an electrician. After that, I moved to the beautiful city of Karditsa, where I’ve lived the best years of my life, or so I think. My parents tend to believe that the nostalgic veil with which I’ve covered the memories of those years makes me think of Karditsa with such love. Whichever the truth may be, my years in Karditsa are my favourite. So, we have ten years in Karditsa, 15 in Athens and another three years that I’ve been here on Chios island, that’s a total of 28 years. I’m still young! I started my game designing career some 10-12 years ago. And for the last five years, I’ve been a full-time game designer. I always wanted to do that, and now I actually have the chance to do it.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos [KD]: We can only say two things? I object to this kind of oppression and say that <1> I too started working in the gaming industry some ten years ago. At first it was a part-time thing, but for the last five years I’m working full time on games. <2> My name is Konstantinos Dimopoulos. Now, can I add something as number <3>, please? Thank you! After years of being involved with gaming journalism and places like IndieGames.com and Rock Paper Shotgun, a couple of years with Kyttaro Games and some attempts to develop games with my friends, I now find myself designing -almost exclusively- cities in games. I should also mention that we are now developing with Jim and a couple of other odd fellas a damn charming freeware adventure game called Earthling Priorities (I’m to blame for the delay, shoot at me!). At the same time I also work for IndieGameStand and IndieBros, as well as some other games. Occasionally, I also sleep. Oh, and I should have delivered a short story last January, and I also offer my services to the publishing house ‘Perispomeni’.

(Konstantinos Dimopoulos is a talented and voluminus man, also know as Gnome)

We’d love to hear about both your first and your most beloved adventure games, the ones holding a special place in your hearts. Moreover, could you tell us what an absolutely necessary feature of a great adventure game is?

JS: My first adventure game was Goblins, and I sucked at it. I think I solved it using its in-game help system. Each time I used the in-game cheater, I felt I was up against a beautiful game with extremely hard puzzles. Maybe today I could solve it without any help, but to be honest, I’m too afraid to try. Then, at some point, I come across (keep in mind not even limewire existed back then) the Curse of Monkey Island Demo, the standard version of which took me over seven years to find and play. It’s then that I decided I wanted to see more games of this genre. I started looking for the Escape from Monkey Island, believing that was the previous adventure of Guybrush. It was his forth, I know that now. I also know it wasn’t a great adventure, but back then… oh well, back then I thought that was the most funny and beautiful game I had ever played. I was hooked, I wanted to follow Guybrush Threepwood’s entire story! I found a copy of the Secret of Monkey Island, but in the pirated version I had there was no music and I was disappointed (though I've played it many times since then). And then… it appeared before my eyes. An illusion. Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck's Revenge.

I’ve always been a great fan of Michael Land’s music. When I first heard it in midi, however, I experienced a magical moment. For me Guybrush’s second adventure is, and I know a lot of people disagree, the best game -regardless of genre- I have ever played. Ever. Its atmosphere hinting that not all is so happy and sunny as it first seems, the cult mentioning, the ending, the epic boss fight… its beyond. There exist no words to properly describe this game, this perfect analogy between puzzles and story. Even though on the special edition’s commentary they said that puzzles were designed so that backtracking was available, I always felt they were tormenting both me and the character. And I loved that; it was a meta feeling, but the forth wall was not awkwardly demolished. I’m generally not a fan of adventure games that try to get one’s monkey up by focusing on frustrating puzzles. I strongly believe adventure games should focus on their storytelling. I’m afraid they do even less so as time goes by. To me, a good example is Life is Strange. It’s not a traditional adventure game, but it’s a game that tells a great story without focusing on hard puzzles.

KD: My first one must have been Leisure Suit Larry 1. I played that at a computer in a factory, running DOS if my memory serves me correctly. And it was a disaster! As for my favourite one, I honestly do not know. It’s a question I find extremely hard for one to answer. Even if we only take graphic adventures into consideration, half my heart lies with Monkey Island 2, Gabriel Knight 3, Grim Fandango, Space Quest IV, The Dig, The Sea Will Claim Everything, Day of the Tentacle, Blackwell Epiphany and Scratches. The other half always lies in Moscow (and in references non-Greeks will never get). Now, as for the absolutely necessary feature of an adventure game, I believe that would certainly be its writing; as a whole. However, if you don’t have solid design, pace and, stuff, the game wouldn’t stand a chance. But, yes, writing it is. It’s the actual core of a game.

(James Spanos has worked on adventure games we've loved, such as 'The Cat Lady' and 'Primordia')

Veterans both of you, eh? Great! So, what do you think of the evolution in the adventure game genre over the years? And what about modern time gamers? Do you believe they are different from gamers ‘nursed’ over a decade ago?

JS: I believe things have obviously changed, and keep changing constantly. Modern gamers desire interactivity; they want to do something while playing and then watch how the game reacted to their doings. I’m convinced that as gaming gains ground worldwide, the games allowing this type of interactivity are the ones that will prosper. Interaction is now playing a great part in games. Old-school gamers didn’t have the Internet at their disposal to watch let’s plays, reviews and trailers; old-school gamers had a cartridge, at the best a box, and that’s where all the information came from. Today gamers can be thoroughly informed and can chose games properly. When we used to buy games, we could only hope the game would prove to be as good as its cover looked. I strongly believe, so I say this again, that adventure games should tone things down as far as puzzles are concerned. A game shouldn’t be focused on its puzzles but to the telling of the story surrounding them. Keeping this in mind, I believe not only that there’s room for everyone, but also that people would like to watch adventure games on Twitch. As it is now, why would someone watch someone else trying to solve a puzzle for hours on end?

KD: After the ups-and-downs and the all that silliness of the late ‘90s and 2000s, I believe adventure games are now going through a new golden age of creativity, and a very lovely one too. There are impressive projects, indie attempts, amazing text adventures, crazy freeware games, innovative ideas, Thimbleweed Park, revamped editions of the classics, and even Telltale... We may be close to having nothing to eat and watching bombs drop on our heads, but our adventure games appetite will surely be satisfied. As for a modern gamer’s type, I really don’t know how to answer that as I don’t believe there’s a single type of modern gamer. Nor do I believe that it’s important; at least not any more. So, I’d rather avoid blabbing and theorizing while trying to convince you that the term ‘gamer’ is useful only under certain circumstances and the term ‘cinefil’ should never have existed.

What adventure game would you recommend to someone who has never played any adventure games?

JS: I think it would be ‘Life is Strange’. Although it is not a traditional adventure game, it’s a good choice. Another good choice would be ‘To The Moon’ and ‘Dropsy’. All three keep their focus on the story and the choices the player makes, while telling truly amazing stories, each in its unique and distinctive way.

KD: If they liked reading, I’d recommend ‘The Fabulous Screech’. It’s short, brilliantly written, beautiful, funny, touching and free. However, it’s not representative of the genre, so maybe the ‘Day of the Tentacle Remastered’. It may not be the easiest adventure, but it’s exceptionally well-designed, beautiful, bonkers, and it's conversion to adventuring results have been tested.

When did you decide to engage yourselves with game development? Was there something that helped you make this decision or was it inevitable to happen one day? Is this your full time job?

JS: It was a random, boring Easter and I was in my village in the countryside. I had bought ten magazines about video-games, and in one of them (it was the PC Master Gold if my memory serves me correctly), there was a CD including a tutorial on how to make your own adventure game using the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) engine. This is the engine used for Primordia and all of Wadjet Eye’s games so far. It was back in 2005, mind you, the indie scene was scarce and surely not as popular as it is now. Nevertheless, I had decided to develop a sequel to ‘Monkey Island’. And I did, though I’m afraid it’s the worse game ever developed. I have always wanted to take part in the creation of games, but prior to that point game engines were hard to use. Now they had ‘game maker-like’ and ‘user-friendly functions, and they sure didn’t ask you to do impossible tasks as in the old days of memory handling. When I saw what the AGS could do, what I could do with it, I really believed I could develop an adventure game, and so I did.

KD: The fact that the financial crisis destroyed the public university helped a great deal, as did a friend’s suggestion to establish ‘Kyttaro’ five years ago. Since then, that’s in 2010 if I’m not mistaken, new routes have opened to me. I have to admit I didn’t expect to manage to combine my field of studies with games. However, I did. And now my work is 99% exclusively about gaming.

(Just-released 'Until I Have You' is James' most recent brainchild)

Could you tell us how you managed to join the studios you've worked with, and which are those studios exactly? Is there anything that inspires you in the studios you are working with right now?

JS: It was pure chance, at least with Primordia. They didn't need a programmer, but still I told them I was available in case they needed something more specialized. And they did after all, so little by little they finally asked me to work with them full-time. My first professional job was actually for Primordia, an adventure game on which I worked with Mark Yohalem (Writer) and Victor Pflug (Artist), then published by Wadjet Eye Games in 2012. At the same time, thought it was released later on, I was working on The Cat Lady. My role there was minor, I just configured the interface while Rem Michalski (creator of the game in question) did all the rest. After my military service (which is obligatory here in Greece), I started working on Until I Have You with Andrea Ferrara (Donald Dowell, Red Hot Overdrive). The game was released a month ago on Steam and it is available for both Windows and Linux. I wrote the story, music and sounds, as well as its code. It's a rather hard platformer focusing on storytelling. I think the best label I could give it would be: 'a playable tribute to Hotline Miami and Blade Runner'.

KD: The first development team for which I worked - mainly in Droidscape: Basilica, Droidarcade and, surprisingly, Bundle In A Box- was Kyttaro Games, which I co-founded. Therefore the members of the team could not get away from me even if they wanted too. Other projects with indie developers have emerged rather by chance and after talks with developer and artist friends. Until today I have worked and continue to work on many independent and frequently free games designed by people like Locomalito, Pacian, Jonas Kyratzes, Richard Goodness, Lectronice, Chris Christodoulou, Jim Spanos and Daniele Giardini. Some games, like the overly ambitious unnamed 'City RPG', never got off the ground, others, like the freebie Workers In Progress: SE - Progress Harder, were released and did well, while others, like Earthling Priorities are (fingers crossed ) soon to be released.
My contribution in the making of indie games varies extensively, whether it be in the writing, design, level design, even in testing / QA or PR. Regarding bigger companies like Frogwares, and a Canadian developer, for which I am not at liberty to make any official statement at the moment, initial contact occurred quite by chance, partly because of common interests and mutual respect. Oh, and working with Frogwares is extremely enjoyable and interesting. Sometimes it even becomes exhilarating, since the people there have a distinct, unique vision, and the ability to make it come true.

Do you suffer from 'the author's complex', when playing a game? Do you find yourselves examining the game mechanics or thinking about the difficulties the creators may have come across while designing a scene or a puzzle?

JS: Oh, most definitely. When I play a game, I always try to figure out the designer's thought process. Unfortunately this kind of breaks the experience in some games. I look at the UI, the interface, the options, everything but the game itself. Or I think in what ways a game could have been made better, or worse. In general I do not properly enjoy them, I have turned out into something like a movie critic.

KD: I try to avoid this. When I do not play a game in a professional capacity, that is when I am not playing it in order to suggest improvements or to write a review, I am trying to enjoy it as the creators intended. To be honest, if I start thinking about possible changes in the game and its puzzles that might make it better, that probably means that I am not really enjoying the game in question that much. On the other hand, when I do finish a truly impressive offering, I often try to find out more about the process of its creation. I occasionally even try to guess the difficulties faced and overcome by the devs.

(Konstantinos is designing the city in Cthulhish 'Sinking City' by Frogwares)

What are the biggest difficulties you come across when making a game? Some of them are probably present in all games, others may be different when you work for a big developer like Forgwares versus indie developers like WadjetEye. Could you elaborate?

JS: For me the biggest difficulties are deadlines and contradictions over creative control. Personally I always meet a deadline, but both the entire team and the project itself are being affected when someone else misses a deadline of a task they have been assigned with. It’s something I’ve seen happening each time I work on project, and I think it’s a hard to overcome problem. Now, as far as contradictions over creative control are concerned, I believe there’s a proverb describing the situation perfectly: ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. This is easier to deal with, especially when there’s an agreement from the very beginning as to who is going to make decisions about Creative Control. Lots of publishers want to have a saying at what the content will be; this is sometimes good, and others bad.

KD: Generally speaking, developing a game is both hard and expensive. The more one is involved in the creative process, the more difficulties one has to face. For instance, while developing ‘Droidscape’, there were extended periods of time when we were left with no money whatsoever, we were trying to resolve every expected or unexpected problem, we were putting pressure on artists, sieging musicians, and to make a long story short: we were driving ourselves crazy! Likewise, in City RPG, it proved impossible to find a programmer to take on the development, pro bono. That resulted in hundreds of workhours on my behalf being totally wasted. It is then that I decided I’d rather not have the burden of an entire project on my shoulders alone. Meaning, I’d rather work in a team, be one of the working gears, and have a life while working. So, working with larger studios has solved for me the main problems of indie development: stressing too much, being extremely tired all the time, and having no actual money to work with. To be honest, I haven’t found any downsides in working with larger studios, yet.

We know your involvement with gaming is overall: not only do you play games, you also remain updated on developments, write articles on gaming and gaming interests, participate in for a and gaming communities, and so forward. Do you think such a ‘complete’ involvement helps and/or alters the developing process of a game?

JS: It depends on how each one feels about it. They say that in order to compose music you need to listen to it first. Personally, I think the same applies to game development. Not that if someone with no influences wishes to work on a game for personal reasons, they should not do it; this is also doable and we ought to respect it. I believe this is a question of ‘target’ for each project.

KD: My answer is a final and unconditional ‘maybe’. Each creative person approaches the same creative process in a totally different way. Personally, I’m tired of trying to approach it holistically so I’m now trying to concentrate on more specific tasks.

Let us proceed to the hottest question of this interview: on what project are you working right now, and what could you tell us about it?

JS: Right now, apart from ‘Until I Have You’ that I’m trying to promote as much as I can, I have made my first baby-steps on a new adventure game called ‘One of These Days’. We are still working on the concept, but I believe it will end up to be something like ‘Deathnote Vs Awake’ as far as the plot is considered. Unfortunately, it’s too early to have any other information to share with you.

KD: I’m currently working on many projects, but the two most time-demanding are ‘Sinking City’ by Frogwares and a second one I can’t disclose yet. In Sinking City I am working on the urban-planning / architectural design / geographic game design of its open world city, which seems to be unique and scary. After all, the entire game will be based on exploring, while the mystery will unfold in a Lovecraftian version of New England, with hellish, devilish and diabolic creatures, flooded streets, ancient stories, horrible horrors, nameless elements and -hopefully- a truly alive and original city.

('Earthling Priorities' is a freeware adventure game developed by both James and Konstantinos)

The indie community of adventure games generally seems close and dear on a global level: they support each other’s projects and make their best to promote them in order to reach as many people as possible. However, it’s rare to see collaboration on the development of a single adventure game. Why do you think that happens?

JS: Collaborations depend on personalities and circumstances. It’s even a matter of pure luck at times. I think that’s not something restricted to adventure games; however, since our communities are smaller, it’s easier to see collaborations and backing each other’s work, at least ore than in other video game genres. On a more human level, we could say that some are used to working alone while others in teams. This is not a matter of viability but suitability.

KD: Only metaphysics can answer this question. My humble guess, excluding games such as Serena, would focus on the fact that in adventure games there needs to be a basic developer who will simultaneously be a writer, a designer and an art director. In many cases lots of indie adventure game developers independently take on those roles, making it hard to work with others like them without having to deal with creative contradictions. It’s like wishing for novelists to work together, with respective differences taken into consideration

What is your opinion about the Hellenic Game Developers Association (HGDA); Does it actively help ambitious young developers in Greece? Speaking of which, how come we haven’t seen any games developed by collaborations between Greek adventure game lovers?

JS: To be honest, the first meeting of HGDA didn’t make quite an impression to me, so I haven’t paid much attention to this effort. I’m afraid I don’t know much either about the members or the actions made by this group, so I can’t say anything about them. I believe in Greece there’s a notion of ‘let’s make money the easiest way possible’. This applies abroad as well, but when it’s the main line of thinking, how can you devote yourself to the necessary hours of work an adventure game demands? Finally, as far as I know we have seen a great game by our fellow Greek developer Alkis Polyrakis: ‘Diamonds In The Rough’.

KD: I admit I have no idea exactly what HGDA does. However, I do believe that our fellow Greek adventure game lovers could develop something truly amazing. There’s plenty of talent here, as well as will. Generally, I’m convinced there’s great talent in game development in this country, though many times it’s being wasted in searching for funding, establishing startups and the like. Three talented people can create something damn great in their spare time, without any European funding.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter the professional game developing world? Where should one start from, what should one be careful of, and what pitfalls should they keep an eye for to avoid?

JS: I think many things have changed since I first started. It would be wise to practice a skill other than ‘I have this idea’. You can get involved with graphic design, 3D Modelling, animation or programming; all those skills are useful. Then you should try to gather a team of people having all those skills respectively in order to materialize your initial idea. There’s no magic recipe to follow, it’s always a question of luck apart from hard work. And try to remember that really wanting something and trying for it does not necessarily mean you will be rewarded for it, or by it.

KD: My first and foremost advice would be to think about it; to REALLY think about it. The situation in game development is generally hard, most indie developers cannot survive after the release (and failure) of their first game, while related work opportunities in Greece are scarce if any. I would suggest either creating games as a hobby and see where that takes you or working with teams and/or studios abroad. The brave and courageous of you who will try the indie way should know that hard times lie ahead. But, not only do they have my blessing (which is ueber-powerful), but also probably know already that art demands sacrifices. And as Kavafis used to say: ‘recovering through art from the effort of creating it’.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

KD: They should gimme 5 euros each so that I can finally go on holidays to Tahiti!

A warm ‘thank you’ to you both for this lovely and informative interview. We wish you happiness and inspiration to days and projects to come!

JS+KD: Oh, the pleasure was ours, we had a great time!

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