Here’s how Changeling has changed Behind the Indies.
Instagram. If you haven’t visited yet, you definitely should. It’s where all of the funniest pics go. That’s how Steamberry Studios got in touch with us. (See how easy it is!!)
Esh and Sprocket (Steph) are making Behind the Indies history because they are the first, but definitely not the last, female indie devs to be interviewed. (Actually we have 3 female led indie studios slated for future interviews already!)
Spotlighting a visual novel game for the first time. Although the story-line of Changeling, which revolves around the paranormal, could easily be developed as a point and click adventure game, the choice to differ from that is unapologetically given below. Simply put… These Indie Devs are doing what they love! Isn’t that the tie that connects all of us who are passionate about this work?
This is our first Behind the Indies interview with a Visual Novel Game Developer.
How do you explain what a Visual Novel is to people who have never heard of it?
Esh: Visual novels make up a pretty varied genre. You have visual novels with dress up sprites, inventory systems, battle systems, quick time events, mini games, animated sprites and backgrounds – static sprites and background. At the core though, every visual novel is a narrative focused game where the player’s choices drive the flow of events, character development, and the outcome of the story.
Steph: With friends and family who aren’t big gamers or with a lot of gaming knowledge beyond triple A and the newer console generations, I found the easiest way to explain visual novels as a new generation of the classic “choose your own adventure” style books. Most people I know grew up with Goosebumps and Animorphs books, both of which featured CYOA themed books, which does help ease them into the idea. For those less familiar with books and more familiar with gaming, I tend to relate to the TellTale game and story style but in a static environment and, frankly, a bit more weight given to the player choices.
What do you say to critics who say that visual novels are full of the same cliche story-lines and too much reading?
Esh: It’s not a totally invalid complaint. First of all, anything with the word ‘novel’ in it is probably not a good idea for someone who dislikes reading. And every game genre out there is full of cliché storylines – it’s an industry wide issue, not a genre-specific one. Anyone who plays horror games knows how frequently you see the same tropes re-used over and over.
But if clichés aren’t driving you from other game genres, they shouldn’t drive you from this one. Just like every other category, there are amazing and unique visual novels out there.
Steph: I think games suffer from the same issues with clichés in genres that music and writing suffer from as well. And game developers struggle with the clichés just as writers and musicians struggle. When you try to break into any industry and into any genre in your industry, you tread a fine line between presenting an audience with something they are familiar with, so you’ll be sure to have some kind of platform to start with, and something new so you can push through the rest of the competition. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a balancing act.
And not all clichés are necessarily bad. There are, of course, problematic ones – in all genres. But there are clichés that become part of what makes that genre iconic. Again, it’s all about balancing what people like to see and want to see, while presenting them with something that challenges the genre as well or does something different with it.
Also, if you come to a genre that uses the word “novel” in it and you don’t like reading, then you’re going to have a bad time.
What makes Changeling unique and different from other visual novels?
Esh: I think one of the main differences with Changeling is how we approach the story and writing aspect. Many visual novels strip their story down to a single, flat plot line without much attempt to create varied subplots, because it can be difficult to juggle subplots and story branching.
Or they keep the cast of characters down to a developed main cast and a few semi-developed extras. Changeling has a large cast of fun and developed side characters as well as subplots that help flesh out the story and make it more interesting. Even though the plot does have a romantic aspect and love interested based story routes, the romantic subplot is just that.
I also think the way we weave folklore and literary references into the story makes for a unique experience.
Steph: I am a writer. That is what I’ve always been from when I was very little, what I trained to be and what I work as full time. And Esh is an amazing writer who has a brilliant understanding on how a visual novel flows. So between us we wanted to utilize our skills to ensure we didn’t boil our characters and plot down into easily guessable lines. We tried to really get as much as we could into this game to communicate a real sense of a huge paranormal world by showing, not telling, and we hope that comes across.
One of the big things, for me, is that we noticed a trend in quite a few visual novels for there to be the “angry” character and the “sweet” character and the “sad” character etc so visual novel players have become somewhat savvy at guessing the ways to get through those character routes easily. And we’ve already noticed on the blog but also in our Discord and forum, followers trying to pigeon hole the Changeling characters into these tropes. But while we’ve definitely given a “flavour” of a trope to a character, we’ve worked hard to make them react like a person, if that makes sense?
So rather than assuming a “sweet” answer will work every time on a “sweet” character, players will actually have to sit up a bit and think about their interactions and the events, and the choices at hand. And we’ve seen some success already in testing to show that it’s definitely not impossible to get a romantic ending, but it’s also not a breeze.
Can you tell us specific details about Changeling’s storyline?
Esh: Sure! Changeling’s story follows Nora Lewis (whose name is customizable) and her estranged twin brother as they learn about a hidden community of supernatural and magical people that exists in their town and at their school. Nora tries to figure out her own past and who she really is while attempting to save this crumbling relationship with her brother.
Each character’s route is a stand-alone installment where Nora’s story overlaps that of one of the other main characters as she’s slowly drawn further and further into the supernatural.
For me, the subplot with Spencer, the twin brother, is one of the more interesting aspects of the story because so far people hate him at the start but come to really sympathize with him as a character as the game progresses.
Steph: We also both love a “grey” villain, someone who isn’t really evil, someone that the audience ultimately sympathises with, to an extent. And I feel like, in at least a few of the story lines and routes, people will find themselves ultimately feeling sorry for their nemesis, whether that is the “evil twin brother” or someone else.
What made you decide to present it as a visual novel versus a standard point and click adventure game?
Esh: I really think it was just a matter of visual novels appealing more to our set of skills – the style of writing we’re both used to, the style of artwork I prefer, and so on. I do think it would be really fun to do a point-and-click style game sometime, but Changeling definitely isn’t as well suited to that, in my opinion. But I think it works really well as a visual novel.
Steph: Art-wise, I am still on the steep side of the learning curve so I wasn’t up to helping with art, so something static like a visual novel was best suited to our skills. We are planning to do another visual novel, for which I am hoping to be able to contribute with the art, and after that we may expand into a more interactive genre. But for the moment, this is our wheelhouse and we like it.
You are developing a very intricate cast of characters. Do you have a favorite? Are any of them based on people you know?
Esh: Everyone is my favorite when I’m working on their specific story route or a scene they’re in. I can’t really pick a consistent favorite because I think they’re all fun in their own way – even the antagonists. Everyone has their quirks, and everyone is fun to write. I like saying Adrien is my favorite just because it makes the beta testers mad. But I’d say that on most days, I’d name Elliot as my favorite. (Just don’t tell the others!)
As far as basing the characters on anyone, our main character is quite feisty at times, and I always joke that any character with a bad temper is based on my mom.
Steph: It’s like telling us to pick the favourite child – we all secretly have one but we’re not supposed to say. Actually, I do honestly like Adrien as a secondary character but from the main cast I am biased toward Ewan. I think lowest on my list, at the moment, is Corvin mostly because he’s an expressive brat and I am still not recovered from the day I coded over 120 expressions for him. And that was still not all of his final expression list.
What magical powers have you ever wanted to possess?
Esh: I want the magic power of being able to have my finished art look exactly the way I envision it in my head.
Steph: This first thing that pops into my head is always flying which is completely useless because I am terrified of heights. So I will say something similar to Esh but that my writing would just come out perfectly the first time. It would save a lot of internal screaming.
I imagine that once a story develops, the possibilities are infinite. How do you limit yourself to plot directions and endings?
Esh: Managing story branching really comes down to strategically placing player choices. You learn pretty quickly which type of choices are manageable and which cause the story to get out of hand. You want choices to matter – I think one of the biggest complaints I see in visual novel reviews is that that ‘choices don’t matter’ – but if placed poorly, choices can really cause headaches with branching. And that does get out of hand fast.
For me, what’s trickier than managing endings is managing variables – just remembering what happens (and where) so that you don’t later refer to something that only happened in a branched scene, or expect the player to have knowledge they will only have if they made a specific choice.
When you write a game as long as Changeling, sometimes those things just start to become a blur so there’s definitely a lot of testing and double checking to make sure we got it right.
Steph: You have an Esh to go “No…that’s too much”. I remember showing her the plan for Ewan’s route and Esh handing back a flowchart that tracked what I had written down and it was basically insane. I really, really love intricate plots, but for visual novels you have to remember that you have to balance that with score weighting, continuity, ending variables and user experience. If a player chooses a yes path and then gets an hour of different dialogues and choices, while a player chooses a no path skips to the end of the day, that’s not a good, equal user experience and causes major issues later on. So you have to plan a lot and reference back on your work.
And, yes, ensuring that the choices mattered was really important to us. We wanted people to feel like they had some agency in the game. I love TellTale a lot but I feel like, more and more with their games, my choices don’t matter and they’re not as fun to play. So I really want to try and bring back that feeling of having some impact, some role in how things turn out.
Tell us about your all female team at Steamberry Studios.
Esh: I didn’t really set out to create an all-female team. It just sort of happened organically. I started the project and sort of dragged Sprocket on board. And we both happen to be ladies. I will say that I was a little nervous getting into game development as a woman because I know it can be tough for women in this industry. But when you’re passionate about something, you just have to pursue it without stopping to think too hard about the potential obstacles and naysayers.
As females in this industry have you ever felt like trail blazers or role models to young girls who want to make games themselves?
Esh: I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way simply because there are actually a lot of female developers in the “otome” visual novel community – or just within the devs specifically developing visual novels with a romantic element to them. A lot of the games I’m following right now have female teams, which is so cool! It’s hard to imagine yourself as a trail blazer when you’re surrounded by people who are equally willing to throw themselves out there and do the same thing you’re doing.
Have you ever faced any gender based discrimination in the online community? If so, how have you handled that?
Esh: I’m pretty oblivious most of the time so I don’t always notice this kind of thing, but there has been some here and there. Mostly from guys who have no time for games geared toward a female audience and, therefore, don’t think they should exist at all.
It sucks any time someone tries to invalidate you or your work regardless of the reason but in the end, the only thing you can do is move forward and prove them wrong.
Steph: Actually, in my case, so far the opposite. I’m mostly on the Instagram side of things at the moment and I’ve actually had a few people reach out, give some advice on things – especially advice on some engines we should try on future games – and it’s been great! I think, really, as long as you’re nice to people, people are generally pretty nice back. I know Esh has dealt with some of the Steam dudes but, really, we don’t get too get too much I don’t think?
What games did you play while growing up?
Esh: I grew up with two older brothers who tended to hog the controllers a lot. So I really didn’t get a chance to play much as a kid. I got more into gaming when I was older and no longer had to share! Now, I love a ton of different style games. Visual novels, of course. And I love point and click style games.
As long as they don’t have stairs I have to navigate. I struggle with stairs.
Steph: …Yeah, Esh’s true nemesis in Skyrim. The first set of stairs she found. I still have no words. My first console was an N64. My Dad travelled overseas a lot and on a trip home once he picked one up with a bunch of games including Ocarina of Time. I missed some of the really early Zelda games but I think I have played everything from Ocarina onwards. I am showing my age by saying Pokemon first started when I was in my last years of primary school so I grew up with those games as well, original black and white brick Gameboy and all. I had a few PC games too but more along the lines of the Curse of Monkey Island franchise. Other than Zelda, there was this awesome quirky N64 game called Silicone Space Station that I loved and Rogue Squadron, which was also awesome!
What inspired you to pursue a career in game development?
Esh: To be honest, it was never something I specifically set out to do. I was researching visual novels for another project – I knew what they were vaguely, but had never played one. And as I started looking into how they worked, what the mechanics were, and so on…
I just sort of remember thinking it was a really fascinating way to create stories. As a writer, I was intrigued and really wanted to try to create my own. So I played many visual novels, learned about them and started creating Changeling! Once I really got elbows deep into the game development process I realized it’s really satisfying and something I really want to keep doing.
Steph: I came online one day and Esh told me we were turning her story idea Changeling into a visual novel. When I visited her earlier that year (I’m in Australia, so we don’t get to catch up in person as often as we would like) she’d had me play a bunch of visual novels in revenge for making her combat the evil stairs in Skyrim and I found the games interesting if a bit flat when it came to plot and characterization. So I liked the idea of trying to do something a bit different and exciting with the genre.
What schooling or training have you had to prepare you for this?
Esh: I haven’t had any specific training on game development. Though I took writing and art related courses in college, I never expected to be developing games later in life. But I’ve always been a very creative person working on some creative endeavor. Developing games wasn’t a huge step from freelancing illustrations or writing my own.
Steph: I haven’t studied game development but I have a BA in Writing and Editing and I currently work with a web dev. and design company as the content/ghost-blogger/SEO/etc for all our clients. They’re also teaching me to code and I’m picking up a lot as I work on the sites which has helped me pick up Ren’py quite quickly. It’s different to PHP and ASP but having the experience has helped.
You had a very successful Kickstarter campaign, how did that help advance Changeling’s development?
Esh: It’s fair to say that without the Kickstarter, Changeling would have been dead in the water. There’s no way we could have continued development on this project without a successful crowdfunding campaign. There are massive amounts of artwork, features we don’t have skill to program ourselves, and so on. Without funding we just wouldn’t have been able to get any of those things, and Changeling wouldn’t have happened. We’re incredibly grateful for the people who liked the idea enough to back it.
How long have you been working on Changeling?
Esh: I really started writing in the latter part of 2015. At that point, I considered Changeling kind of a fun side project and it’s very possible nothing ever would have come of it. But I got pretty fired up about it in early 2016 and began working on it more earnestly. I created the first character sprite (Corvin!) and started up the development blog around that time, I think. And that was probably the “true” start of the project in the sense that setting up the blog and announcing the existence of the project created a sort of accountability for myself and kept me focused on development. All of 2016 was focused on creating the initial art assets and script writing. We didn’t really begin coding anything until 2017, I don’t think.
Version 1.2 is available for download now, when can we expect a full release?
Esh: As soon as humanly possible!
What platform(s) will you be releasing Changeling on?
Esh: Steam and Itch.io are our primary targets for the time being. We may look into other platforms once the game is released.
What has been the most challenging part of completing Changeling?
Esh: There have been so many challenges with this project – from just managing a 700,000 word game script, to really stretching our skill set in the art realm, to learning to code simple game functions.
But honestly, the hardest part for me has just been managing our two person team and all the various freelancers. It’s one thing to manage my own time and another to poke other people with sticks until they fulfill their obligations. Few people are as passionate about a project as its creators. When you bring a freelancer into the project, sometimes you really have to prod them to get them to work on your schedule and with the fervor you expect.
Steph: One part of it is time zones. Esh is in the Pacific Northwest and I am in Australia. So by the time I get home from work, it’s 2-3am for Esh. So often it is weekends when we have the most time to properly discuss things. But the biggest challenges for me have been personal ones. I juggle a full time job with working on the game, which during the week only leaves me 1-2 hours to do game development.
I also deal with systemic lupus erythematosus and I’ve been admitted to hospital due to complications with it, I think, 3 times over the development of the game so far. It’s a chronic illness and there are days when it’s hard to just put one foot in front of the other. You don’t know if you’re going to wake up and it will be a good day, or a day when you’re legs won’t be working right, or a day when you can’t see properly, or a day when you’ll have a costochondritis flare up (which feels like a heart attack that will last up to 8 hours sometimes), or if you’ll end up in the E.R on a morphine drip or if you’ll end up admitted to hospital. It makes planning really difficult. And it frustrates me because it slows down things on my end.
Did I read correctly on Twitter that someone has been playtesting Changeling with a friend’s mum : ) ? What was her impression of the game?
Esh: This was Stephanie’s Mom, who was curious about the game and wanted to try it out. Steph knows better how her Mom reacted – what I mostly remember is the hilarity of her naming the main character “Mum” then getting confused as to which character was the Mom. She was also disappointed that, at that time, there was only one character route coded so she didn’t have much choice whose story she could read.
Steph: Yes, my Mum decided to try and test play for me. She confused herself the first time because for some reason she named her character Mum so when Nora’s actually mother came on screen she got mixed up. So we had to start over. She also was never totally convinced that Corvin was a guy, either, which made me laugh. Mum wasn’t able to finish playing because we had to dig in with some of the developing work but she’s been asking when she can get back into it and I’m really interested to see what endings she gets. It was good to get feedback, though from someone who has never played a visual novel before! I think it has helped us make some tweaks that will hopefully help appeal to newer audiences.
How else have you been evaluating progress during Changeling’s development?
Esh: Primarily through play testing. We have a core group of beta testers – some of whom were Kickstarter backers – that play through every route as we get the script imported into the game engine. We first send out an “alpha” version that is just the script by itself so we can get feedback on the story, the branching and, of course, have them point out any typos or errors. It’s really a “beta-reading” phase. And then we send out a beta version where they play test for sprite errors or other issues.
It’s a pretty critical part of the process because with such a big script, it’s hard for two people to catch everything on their own.
What kind of feedback have you received?
Esh: Our beta testers spend a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of comma usage! =) But we also discuss stat scoring a lot. Why is choice A considered a good choice and choice B considered bad? Is it too difficult (or easy) to get the “good” end in a particular route? And so on.
But we’ve gotten lots of feedback outside our beta testing group as well.
After the demo was released, but before the Kickstarter, we actually got some pretty harsh criticism that picked at the art style on several fronts as well as the story itself. And, ultimately their feedback was that the game wasn’t worthy of being commercial at all. This was kind of a defining moment for me because while it’s always great to get encouragement, constructive criticism can be hard to swallow.
But the first time you get a long, thoughtful, polite, but pretty harsh criticism is the moment you kind of have to stop back, look at what you’re doing, and decide where to go from there.
Steph: This was our first foray into working with beta testing but not the first time working in industries that force you to deal with critique. So we’re pretty good with handling it and not having a knee-jerk reaction. You learn how to analyse critique and take from it what you need to improve your work, as well as how to respond to critique to ensure you don’t upset the other party and end up being trolled – which happens to far too many very new developers, I think.
Working with the beta testing team has been a good learning curve though! The fixation on grammar and punctuation was a little odd, but it has taught us a lot for our next time around and how we’ll structure the testing phase!
How have you incorporated that into the game?
Esh: Ultimately, though we really value all feedback, we can’t apply everything. But I try to be very thoughtful in my approach to feedback and criticism. When someone told us our backgrounds kinda sucked, I worked to improve the ones I created – and to hire a really talented BG artist to do the rest. When we were told our first route was way too hard, we took a long look at how to improve the way we keep score and track choices.
We can’t apply every bit of feedback, but we definitely try to take all feedback very seriously.
How does the current Changeling game differ from what you had originally envisioned it being?
Esh: For one thing, it’s longer! When we first started, it was really difficult to estimate things how play time translates into word count. I knew about how long I wanted the game to be from the perspective of play time, but I had no idea what that looked like from a word count perspective. And it was really hard to find a sort of benchmark for that. My original estimate was pretty low compared to where we ended up. Writing this script has given me a really healthy respect for all the awesome, lengthy visual novels out there.
Steph: It is definitely a lot longer. We planned to keep each route to around 80k words, the length of a young adult novel. But I think every single one ended up being over 100k? Or at least closer to 100k than 80k. I know Ewan’s route in particular was at 120k when we finished the first draft.
What keeps you motivated to continue on this project and see it through till the end?
Esh: Definitely our followers and backers! Those guys are seriously great. They’re so encouraging and sweet. Not to mention enthusiastic about the world, the characters and the game itself. Game development is a really slow process – more so when you’re a small team battling chronic illness and real life along the way like we are.
But the days we’re feeling discouraged, or when we’re just sick of the characters and story and art, our followers are there to encourage us to keep going. Their enthusiasm has been a truly invaluable source of encouragement for me personally!
Steph: Definitely our followers and backers! I think the Kickstarter really helped because it made us accountable to finish something. There was a great expo here, last year, in Melbourne that featured an alley for indie game developers and one of the biggest issues was a lot of them were still working on their games – some had been developing for 10 years or more! And that’s because they hadn’t really given themselves something to motivate them to finish.
But also just…being too stubborn to stop! We want to get this finished and out there, no matter what.
What “dev to dev” advice would you give other indie developers?
Esh: There is so much! But if I had to give one piece of advice?
Learn to handle feedback! Indie devs have this reputation for being unable to handle criticism and, unfortunately, it’s not totally undeserved. I think that because a lot of indie developers are just normal people who decided to get into making games, many of us have never had the experience of being reviewed or criticized by others. So we aren’t great at knowing how to be gracious in accepting harsh feedback.
Everyone has a knee-jerk reaction to want to defend their choices and defend their work. And it’s definitely not in our job description to take abuse from people. But there’s no excuse for a developer to tear into someone who gave them honest feedback. It’s one thing if a person is attacking you with insults and curse words. But it’s another when they’re just stating their opinion about your game (even if it’s a harsh one).
If we want to be taken seriously as game industry professionals, I feel the first step is learning to take the negative feedback along with the good. It’s not easy, but I think it’s definitely an important part of being a game developer.
Steph: I have to agree with Esh because this is an issue that crops up in the literary industry as well with new writers – the fact that a lot just aren’t ready to take critique. You have to realise that you can’t hold out for universal popularity. Not everyone loves Breath of the Wild. So not everyone is going to love your game. And online, with that sense on anonymity, it’s worse. Because you’re going to have some bored person who’ll try and get a rise out of you just because they’re bored.
So you have to learn to take a step back before replying to things. I tell people to go for a walk or wash the dishes – do something to take a step back for a while. Then come back and read over the reply. If it’s just nonsense and cursing, ignore it. If it breaks TOS or it is threatening – block and report. If it’s harsh critique, then break the critique down into smaller pieces that are easier for you to handle. Assess each piece and see if you a)can use it to improve the game – or your next game, b)if the critique is a genre issue but you understand where the person is coming from – especially if they are new to your genre, and c)if it is necessary to reply directly to that portion of the feedback. But when you reply just be careful with your wording. Try not to be angry or defensive. Keep neutral or positive, as much as possible.
It is harder to do than reacting defensively and “fighting back”, but considering your wording, being polite, thanking people and addressing things they’ve brought up can help turn a critic into a fan, which is way more valuable than causing an explosion of drama. Again, in my experience already, when you are nice to people, generally they’re super nice back and you gain a great new support base with new knowledge sources.
Did we miss any Behind the Scenes information you would like to add?
We just want to thank you guys for taking the time to interview us! It’s super cool to do our first real interview!
We could probably ramble on a lot more. I could ramble for days on the topic of criticism or working with beta testers, coding woes, or just about how not to give up – even when you want to pull a pillow over your face to scream and cry in frustration. We’ve both had so many of those days.
In the end, making a game of any kind is a huge challenge. There are people who don’t consider visual novels “games” at all (something else I could rant about) but pulling one together is not an easy task.
It is, however, really rewarding, and it’s been so satisfying watching it come together. And we’ve met so many cool people during the course of development. We wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Hi, Brian here. Going to do my first editors note. First, I want to thank Steamberry for giving us such an in depth and honest interview! I also want to highlight that this interview is ALL GIRL POWER! Kimberly not only set-up the Instagram that got us in touch with Esh and Steph, she also did all the research, the questions… everything except the answers and the format for posting. Thank you all so much!