Award-receiving, super-talented animation studio Moonbot* are venturing into the realm of games. On the PC they're doing it with an enigmatic and beautiful third-person action take on the classic story of The Golem, aka The Golem of Prague. Moonbot's intention is to raise the money via Kickstarter – a tricky approach for a team that is not established in the gaming world – but what we've seen of their designs are predictably breath-taking. It would sad if this one failed. I decided it was time to have a talk with Moonbot and find out exactly what they are up to.
Read on for their thoughts on why games shouldn't have cinematics, why The Golem is the perfect subject matter for a game, and the frustration inherent in trying to do something new.
I spoke to Bohdon Sayre, Sara Hebert, and Adam Volker.
RPS: So I saw the Kickstarter and was immediately taken with the idea – the source material is really intriguing... but first can we can we catch up with who guys are, because I don't think the name will be all that familiar to gamers?
Volker: Well we're a relatively new studio, actually, having started in 2009. We did a short film that we won an Academy award for, called The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which won best animated short. We've done some app projects for a few clients – Polyphonic Spree for example – and we're working on Diggs Nightcrawler for the Sony Wonderbook.
Sayre: There are three important guys that the company originates with, William Joyce, Brandon Oldenberg, and Lampton Enochs, those are the partners and owners of the company. Joyce was a pretty famous children's book author, but got into animation pretty early on (Robots, Rise Of The Guardians) he worked with Pixar, Dreamworks and so on. Anyway these guys wanted to start a company that was free of some of the studio politics you get, get down to the really creative stuff, and do different, medium-agnostic things. And a large slice of the company did come from film, and a number of us went to Ringling College of Art & Design in Florida, which is popular for a few things but particularly film. We found that we were half way through a short-film and we said “we should do more than this”. We said “videogames are awesome, they are the future!” Adam and I are avid gamers, and so it made sense for us to get in there and get into the games industry. We just want to bring new ideas to games, and we're hoping to do that with The Golem.
RPS: The Golem is a fascinating idea for a game, not least because I think it is one of those defining stories that has sort of faded into the background. Everyone knows some modern version of the story, but not everyone is familiar with the earlier mythos.
Volker: People have only generally seen the second or third iterations of these stories. There were a couple of movies from a long time ago...
Hebert: 1930s, I think.
Sayre: And they were really weird! Really weird!
Volker: The idea was in Bill's (Joyce) mind for some time, before I was even working here. The IP had been on the plate for a long time. But then some of the new guys were in a brainstorming session, and this came up: it made total sense. It was perfect for a game. The core thing that we talked about was making sure the player is accurately represented as to what the golem is feeling. When you see a giant monster you tend to expect it to go around and smash everything, but what we like is the idea of the player being very controlled and precise. The original idea had you befriending a small creature, like a butterfly, and it was about you not hurting things, even though they are tiny and delicate.
Sayre: So when you see the golem you expect him to be this big violent instrument of destruction, and that is one of the purposes he has, but he also has the soul of an infant, the wonder a child has for the world is there. You have giant body but the things you want to do don't mesh with that. This is the journey we want the player to take with the golem.
RPS: How is that going to work? Seems like there's inevitably going to be a component from your background in film?
Sayre: When people hear us talk about telling a story with a game they tend to ask whether there will be cinematics, and we feel that you can't jam certain media like cinema into other media. So we are aiming to not have any cinematics at all. We want everything that happens to the player in terms of story to be told to the player directly through the game. So play is third-person, but we're still deciding whether the camera should follow the player, or whether you should have no control over it. What you do as the golem varies depending on the point the story is at. So at one point you will be protecting a kid from an oncoming army, and at another point you will be hunting down spies in a city, playing more of a cat and mouse game. You have to learn to become accurate and skilled with your body, as a machine.
RPS: Why make the game in Unity?
Volker: It's fast. We like to run tight projects, and get stuff in there quickly, and Unity allows us to do that. I think people will look at this project and say “hey, that's actually something we'd expect done in UDK or something”, because it's naturally lending itself to visuals. But making sure everything is as fun as possible is more important than the visual, and Unity has a strong pipeline for getting things done quickly.
RPS: Unity can tricky with a lot of people though – how many people are working on The Golem?
Volker: The Moonbot team itself is pretty large, like forty-something people. But right now we have six engineers, and we tend to use a subset of the company depending on what the project is. So it would be at least half of the company working on the full game once we start knocking it out.
RPS: Will the game happen if your Kickstarter fails?
Sayre: It will happen.
Volker: We're pretty adamant about making it happen. If Kickstarter isn't the way, then, well, it will certainly be a lot more stressful to figure out a way to get it made, but we will get there.
Sayre: Kickstarter is a chance for us to do it independently, but if we can't we'll have to reach out to others to get it rolling. We will get it rolling.
RPS: Do you think being an animation studio, rather than a game studio at heart, presents you with particular problems?
Sayre: Absolutely. Even as we've gone through the project with Sony there have been a number of things that have surprised us. But we've reached a stage where we want to keep that going, we're ready to make a full move into that space.
Volker: We're keen to highlight that we're a media-agnostic company, and that's great, but I think that also presents some challenges. In the animation world people are already familiar with Moonbot, for example, but in the gaming world they are not. We still have ground to break there, and we have to prove ourselves to gamers. We've done that in animation, Bill has done that in books, we need to do that in games.
RPS: The way things work in other media sort of push you in a particular direction, which isn't always true with games. The technology means there are different constraints.
Volker: Absolutely, I mean, we've been working with real-time rendering for a while now doing small-scale stuff and working up to larger scale stuff, but it's different. We're not 100% fresh either, we have people who have worked on games.
Sayre: Work-method oriented stuff tends to be a lot different. The things you can change in film at different points are very different to things you can change in games at different points. At what point you need to lock in different things have been the biggest surprises. The visual barriers aren't really there. If you have a smart art team you can hit anything you want, and I think the graphics race is sort of over. We need to just make smart artistic choices. I'm not worried about that, so much as how different it is to work within different frameworks for the medium. Getting the most out of that has been a challenge.
Volker: Something we've found that has been good is that the teams we've set up, technical, animation, art, have never been hired specifically for one thing. We're a generalist company, where everyone has to be good at different things. The team picked up everything related to game development really quickly, and these were guys who had never made normal maps, who had never had to deal with low-poly objects that look like high-poly objects, but they picked it up because they weren't over-specialised, maybe? That's been exciting to see.
RPS: How have you found the issue of engaging with gamers? They can be a demanding audience...
Sayre: It's a different industry, sure, and we really respect that. People aren't going to put money down without a reason.
Volker: Yes, it's been challenging our working method and forcing us to change how we do things. That's always healthy for a company to have to go to, I think.
RPS: What sort of feedback have you had for what you've proposed?
Volker: Reactions are really positive, but I think we tend to lose the average gamer when we talk about the philosophy of what we're doing.
Sayre: And we are talking about philosophy more than specifics, admittedly, but that's partly because we're trying to be experimental and explore what can be done with this concept, rather than just laying it out. We want to figure out the best way to marry story, gameplay, and mechanics. We want to change this stuff along the way.
RPS: Kickstarter is odd like that... it should be about innovation and experimentation, but it's become about people knowing want to know exactly what they are getting?
Hebert: I wasn't going to say anything, but it's been really interesting for me because what I primarily do marketing, and it feels really strange to be unveiling the project as we go along, and to be beholden to what people want to see or do. And I have to admit that a lot of the games that we looked at on Kickstarter as models for our own project felt either like games that might have gotten made anyway, or were established as a concept, rather than looking for seed funding to get their concept off the ground. That's very different from how we've had to approach it. We need the money to get this interesting project off the ground, so that we can involve other backers as investors in a larger project.
RPS: The drift in game Kickstarters towards nostalgia is... disappointing.
Volker: Disappointing is the word! See games that are reskins of older games doing so well feels...
Volker: Well, I feel too often like saying “that game already exists!” Where are the new games?
Sayre: Because we're in a creative industry, everyone makes things in a different way. You can make a game in an infinite number of ways, and some of those don't sit well with the way people want to spend money on Kickstarter.
Volker: It's frustrating to see “Halo With Pirates” or whatever, because people get that and back it. But if it's a new idea, like Golem, well, you can't make that easy reference. There are mood references and things we could make -
Hebert: People ask if it is like Shadow Of The Collossus, and on some level you could make that reference-
Volker: Yeah, mood. But not gameplay references, specifically.
RPS: Games are problematic in that sense, because although they have distinct forms that people are familiar with, the mixture of media and systems in a game can't be understood easily until it, or something like it, is played by the individual.
RPS: Do you think that will necessitate playable prototypes on Kickstarter in the future?
Volker: Yes. I think that is happening already. But, you know, we are Kickstarting to make that game in the first place.
RPS: Yes. It's an interesting predicament. I hope Kickstarter matures into a place where people can take risks on innovation. But perhaps it won't. We shall see. Either way, good luck with The Golem. We'll see more of it soon, I hope. Thanks for your time.
*I type Moonbot as “Moonboy” every single time.