Crazy Monkey Studios
In the previous article we talked with Karel Crombecq from Sileni Studios. In this article we will be talking with Benjamin Claeys from Claeys Brothers Arts. Benjamin is one half of the company duo who are working together with Crazy Monkey Studios in Kontich on the game ‘Guns, Gore & Cannoli’.
Jesse: Hi Benjamin, thanks for having me. Could you tell us a bit about the history of the team?
Benjamin: So the team working on Guns, Gore & Cannoli consists of two parts. There is Crazy Monkey Studios which was founded by Steven Verbeek and has been making mostly mobile games up till now. And we have the Claeys Brothers Arts which consists of me and my brother, we have been doing art and animation for a variety of different projects. We also worked with Crazy Monkey Studios on some of their previous games such as EMPIRE and Siegebreaker.
But recently the mobile market is being dominated by free to play games often developed by larger studios. So the smaller indie developers have been focusing more on developing indie titles for console and Steam. The fact that console owners like Microsoft and Sony have made game development and publishing for their consoles easier has also helped this movement. Development kits are cheaper, if not free, and there are no more licence costs for publishing on either console or PC. So the situation on those platforms is a lot better for indie developers these days.
Jesse: So tell us a bit more about your current project.
Benjamin: Our current project, Guns, Gore & Cannoli is a very ambitious project which we were able to realise because we managed to get government funding, which has been available in Belgium for games since 2012. In the Netherlands government funding for games had been around for quite a few years before that. So we got managed to get funding for Guns, Gore & Cannoli, a project which we, that is to say Claeys Brothers Arts, had started a couple of years ago. Back then the game was kind of a way too big mobile game, so we had ideas to bring the game to steam. Unfortunately at the time Unity wasn’t the game engine that is now and the options that we had at the time to develop our game were too hard for us to tackle alone. So we put the project in fridge until we managed to find the funds and opportunity to realise game. And that is what we have been working on for the past year with Crazy Monkey Studios.
The Guns, Gore & Cannoli team, from left to right: Paul Rozie, Matthias Claeys, Benjamin Claeys, Steven Verbeek
But the very first work on the project dates way back to 2004. For our studies me and my brother made an animation movie named ‘Hell bent for Whisky’ with the same concept as Guns, Gore & Cannoli. Around the time zombies were becoming real popular and we had the idea to make a story around that. So the story is about a maffia duo in the twenties that are fighting against zombies. And the movie was quite a success, it was popular and we even won a price with it.
In 2009 we decided that we wanted to explore the concept behind the movie a bit more. At first we were thinking about a comic or something. But around that time independent game development was starting to rise, and not just creating games but actually making money off of it. So that drove us to rewrite the original story for a game. We were working on that for around a year, but it turned out that it was too much workload. We essentially had a full time job making a game on top of our actual day job. So we had to put the project on hold. But since 2014 we are back working on the project, along with Crazy Monkey Studios this time.
Jesse: So, the project has been on hold for some time. What did you guys do in the meantime?
Benjamin: Claeys Brothers Arts mostly did contract work for other companies. We did some animation movies, commercials, and illustrations for school books, but also art for other games such as Siege Breakers which was made by Crazy Monkey Studios. Crazy Monkey Studios on the other hand was working mostly on mobile games during that time. They made around five games before we joined up.
The office of Crazy Monkey Studios
We got to know each other when we were working on Guns, Gore, & Cannoli. We first met the guys at Crazy Monkey Studios at a developer’s conference and since then we have worked together with them on a number of their projects. And ultimately that led to us reviving and working together on Guns, Gore, & Cannoli. We are also currently working together in their office on the game.
Jesse: What does your development process look like for Guns, Gore, & Cannoli?
Benjamin: So our project started with the story, because we already had established a strong basis for that in Hell bent for Whisky. So one of the first things Claeys brothers Arts started doing was testing out animations. How are we going make the characters move in our game? Drawing the characters was relatively simple, since they are always walking sidewards. But animating them meant we needed to separate the characters in different pieces. Legs, feet, torso, arms, head, etc. Then we put those small pieces together in the animator of Unity where my brother would make the different animations like walking, jumping, and shooting. Once we had the first animations running we would start coming with levels and enemies.
But the animations were definitely the toughest challenge. Especially because the characters need to be able to do things like shooting while walking. This meant we needed to be able to play two different animations on same the character at once, one animation for the torso and one for the legs, and that was quite hard to get the right.
And then we started working on the levels. At first we just drew the ideas that we thought would be fun and sketched together an entire level that way. Then we chopped the level into pieces and put in into Unity. But when we were further into development we decided to changed our pipeline. Instead we would block out our levels in Unity to see what was fun, and then add art on top of that later. So the levels are much more modular now with a lot of small pieces combined with each other instead of giant chucks of level which we had before. And that is a much more efficient pipeline for creating the levels.
The main challenge with such a modular system though is making sure that the level doesn’t look repetitive, because you keep reusing the same small pieces to make the entire level. For example, we have a level that takes place at a construction site. And the scaffolding originally consisted of a single piece of art that repeated across the entire scaffolding. So we made five variations of it, some with dirt on it, others with a lamp hanging from it and by alternating those and mixing them up you don’t really notice that it are just the same things repeating over and over again.
But the modular system works really nicely. It also makes it a lot easier to modify and test a level than it was with our previous system where we drew our entire level in photoshop. All in all, we learned a lot during the process of making Guns, Gore & Cannoli, we’d definitely tackle a lot of stuff differently if we had known what we know now when we started the project.
The Guns, Gore & Cannoli team replenishing their health with their game’s iconic food and health pick-up: Cannoli
Jesse: At what point do you start looking at playtesting? Putting people in front of your game and seeing how they play it, what the user experience is like.
Benjamin: Eight months into development we showed Guns, Gore, & Cannoli at Gamescom 2014 which was our first big playtest which we were really working towards. Before that we had attended two smaller conferences which were also very important playtests for us. One thing that was very difficult to determine for us was how fast a character should walk, how high it should jump, and how low and high it should be able to shoot. And all of that needed to be established early because the levels need to be build around that. In our prototype we had a movement speed, jump height and everything else, but it is really hard to know whether that is right anymore after you’ve been working with it every day for so long. It just feels normal. So we tested the game at a conference where we got feedback on that. And a week later we had somebody from Sileni Studios come over who confirmed that we had to change the way everything felt because right now it really wasn’t all that fun. And the things that are changed is something that you really need a playtester for because they are much better able to pinpoint what feels wrong since they have had no previous experience with the game.
So we made some drastic changes to the game such as increasing the speed and changing the feel of the weapons until the playtesters thought it felt good. And then we continued working towards the first big conference which was Gamescom. And the reception of the game there was very positive. Of course there are still many things that need to be changed. We take note of areas that players have trouble with and which parts of the game don’t seem to be communicated clearly enough to the player. For example, there are a number of pick-ups in the game including weapons and health pick-ups. The latter take the form of Cannoli. As an artist, at the beginning we wanted to integrate those pick-ups nicely into the background, but from a gameplay perspective that was obviously completely wrong because players need to be able to see those items clearly. Similarly the route that the player needs to take through the levels needs to be well-lit, the lighting doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be clear. And clarity was really an important recurring theme that we saw throughout our playtests.
Jesse: Finally, could you tell me something about the indie scene in Belgium, specifically when compared to the indie scene in the Netherlands?
Benjamin: I’ve heard about the Dutch Game Garden in the Netherlands, which helps independant developers to find each other and stay close together. In Belgium everything is much more fractured, there are very little indie developers with offices that are close to each other. In Belgium we do usually know each other, but very rarely do we actually work together or help each other. To begin with, there aren’t even that many game developers in Belgium. Larian Studios is a big game developer, but that is about it.
In Belgium every developer needs to find their own way. Marketing is especially tough for game developers around here. Because there isn’t that tight indie community that the Netherlands has, it is harder to get word of your game out there because you can’t amplify it through that community. On top of that, the funding provided by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) can only be used for production, not for marketing purposes. So that makes it quite hard to get your game noticed.
Despite that, the existence of the VAF has had a good impact on the indie scene in Belgium. To my knowledge no big games have been developed in Belgium that have received no funding from the VAF, with the exception of Larian Studios of course. The way that the VAF works is that it provides you with half the budget needed to develop your game, and the developer will need to obtain the other half. Once your game is finished you only need to start paying back the VAF after you’ve earned back your own half of the investment. Only after that you need to start paying back their half. And if you never turn a profit on the game, you need to pay them either. The system works quite well and I think it is a good deal for the indie developers in Belgium, so no complaints there.
Jesse: Thank you Benjamin for this insightful look into Claeys Brothers Arts and Crazy Monkey Studios, as well as the Belgium Indie Scene.
We hope you enjoyed our two part look into the indie scene in Belgium. Thanks for reading!