Armikrog: Feat Of Clay - Games Weekly

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Armikrog: Feat Of Clay

When we got the chance to grill Ed Schofield about Armikrog, one question loomed larger than any other: If claymation is such a difficult process to get right, why use it at all? “Clay is awesome! The inherently physical properties of clay lend itself nicely to the hand-crafted, bare-knuckled approach to stop-motion animation. But as fun as this is, it’s not for everyone. Clay and stop-motion animation is a very time intensive process we pose and photograph a puppet 30 times for just one second of on-screen movement! If that’s not crazy enough, before we even shoot our first frame of stop-motion animation for the game, we hand draw the animation and backgrounds and put them in the game to test. We do this because it’s much easier and cheaper to change a drawing than it is to change finished stop-motion animation or handmade, sculpted backgrounds.

“Once we get things working and tested in the drawing phase, we then move on to the final phase of physically building sets and creating the stop-motion animation. It’s a lot of work, but we love the process and through this process we end up with a very unique look and feel that you just don’t find in other games.”

Armikrog is a spiritual successor to The Neverhood, which, for all its charm, was rooted firmly in the Jane Jensen era of puzzle design. Thus we felt compelled to ask if there would be a re-run of the puzzle where you literally have to walk through a corridor for half an hour. “Ha! No long corridors in Armikrog! In some ways our core philosophy on game design is the same as it was when we made the Neverhood: make the game that we personally enjoy. We believe that if you’re making a game that you really like, it will show though in the end. We spend a fair amount of time at the studio brainstorming ideas, with the main goal of trying to make each other laugh. We’ve been very intentional to make sure each of the puzzles in Armikrog are rooted in the story and lore of the world in which they exist with their overall purpose being greater than the sum of their parts.

“One aspect of design that wasn’t available to us back on the Neverhood is being able to have Armikrog beta tested by our Kickstarter backers. Getting feedback directly from our target audience has been a great addition to the production process. The backers have been providing feedback on the game and even making suggestions for new features some of which will end up in the final game.”
There are some definite advantages to being a blind alien space dog who is willing to eat just about anything!
Another significant change is that you now control not one character, but two: a sarcastic blue collar astronaut and his wise-cracking, omnivorous space pooch. “In terms of backstory, Tommynaut and Beak Beak have a very long history together as friends, confidants and drinking buddies. And while they differ in their personal motivations, they both share a spirit of adventure. During gameplay, Tommynaut takes the lead and is utilised to accomplish most of the game’s core features. However, Beak Beak does possess skills that the player will call on to collect clues and solve puzzles that Tommynaut isn’t equipped for. In Armikrog, there are some definite advantages to being a blind alien space dog who is willing to eat just about anything!”

The characters also boast another significant upgrade: they can talk. “For the most part, Klaymen never spoke in the Neverhood. This worked perfectly for his childlike and innocent nature. In Armikrog, having the main characters speak is part of our evolution as game designers and artists. Tommynaut being able to speak has opened up a lot of avenues for us to expand on both story and gameplay, and given us a chance to develop the main characters in a new way. Michael J. Nelson (Tommynaut) and Rob Paulsen (Beak Beak) have had major influences on solidifying the personalities of their characters. Michael was a perfect fit for Tommynaut’s ‘straight-shooter’ personality mixed with some very subtle sarcasm, while Rob proposed giving Beak Beak a Brooklyn-esque accent.

“Aside from being two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, both Michael and Rob are hilarious and love to improvise which inevitably leaves us laughing hysterically on the floor in a pool of our own urine.”

Another common thread with Armikrog’s predecessor is the blues music of Terry Taylor; an odd choice for a science fiction milieu. “We first worked with Terry on the Neverhood back in 1996. For that game we wanted a Dixieland jazz feel. Terry’s blend of silliness and musical sophistication culminated into a unique soundtrack that not only brought an additional depth to the Neverhood world, but also stood on its own apart from the game. When we began production on Armikrog, we called Terry and he was very excited to do the music for Armikrog. Terry is very collaborative and draws a lot of inspiration directly from the projects he’s involved with, so we sent him some concept drawings and test animations, along with some musical influences like the Flaming Lips ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ and The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds.’ Terry took everything in and infused it with his own personal style.”

It would be quite a feat to fund a project this bonkers via a conventional publishing model, hence the use of Kickstarter. The campaign was a success, raising close to a million dollars; yet Ed described the experience as being both exciting and humbling. “One of the key things we learned was that as an indie developer, it’s really important to stay connected with your fan base. From the moment we launched our campaign, people began to reach out to us, wanting to hear all about Armikrog and the process of making a hand crafted game, and to share stories about their Neverhood adventures. In addition to fund raising, Kickstarter allows this direct communication between us and our fans in a
way that we had never experienced before.

“It’s really been an honour, and this type of relationship changes the way we think about production we’re no longer creating a game for the general public, but we’re now creating a game for a group of people who we have gotten to know over time: gamers, fans and entrepreneurs who have come along side of with us to create a game that would never have happened without their support.”

This distributed approach extended to the development process itself; talking to Ed about the problems that entailed, we soon got a rough idea why Armikrog is almost an entire year late. “One of our biggest production roadblocks was underestimating the amount of latency that can occur when working with a virtual team. Our core team is here at the Pencil Test Studios office, but we have programmers, artists, musicians, and sound designers spread out all over the world that we needed to synch up with our in-house production. Scheduling work to flow across multiple time zones was something we really had to perfect in order to get production to move smoothly.”

Gangly yet barrel-chested, Earthworm Jim, Klaymen, and Tommynaut are superficially similar. Yet beneath the surface, Ed’s team has been pushing the envelope. He asserts that Armikrog by far has been his most artistically satisfying project to date. “Around the studio, there’s a healthy competition and a lot of encouragement to do your best work. We still consider ourselves students of the arts, realising that no matter how much you know, there’s still always so much more to learn.

“While there are similarities between the art styles of Armikrog and the Neverhood, we’ve veered away from the “clay only” techniques of the Neverhood and incorporated a mixed-media approach with Armikrog. In addition to clay, we’ve used wood, foam, moss, sculpy, paint, cardboard, hot glue, and kitbashing techniques (a process of repurposing old bits from toy models, games or electronics to add additional details to a set) to make Armikrog one of the most unique worlds you’ll ever see!”

And when the game is finally out the door, what next for Pencil Test Studios? “Of course, we may take a day or two off after Armikrog ships, but we haven’t made any final decisions on what our next project will be. We’re definitely open to TV and film and we’ve got some game ideas that we’ve been kicking around that incorporate more stop-motion techniques, as well as games that go back to our hand-drawn platformer days.” Could that mean more Earthworm Jim? We wait with bated breath.
“At the end of the day, it will be a fun and funky project that we really feel passionate about, and something that we’ll really enjoy making.”

Armikrog is due to launch Q2 2015.

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