Learning on the Job – Developer Interview with Naraven Games

Naraven Games Logo

I recently played Answer Knot, a short, first-person walking-simulator from Naraven Games in which you play as Zach, stuck at home awaiting answering machine messages from his wife June. The game provided an interesting experience (you can read Indie Hive’s review here) and I was keen to find out more about the process of producing it and what to expect next from the studio. I reached out to lead developer Julia Jeanneret to ask some questions!

I know you’re relatively new to the game’s industry; what were you doing previously and what prompted the change?

New definitely is the word. I went to film school half a decade ago, and have been working in the film industry ever since – mostly in production (on-set and remote), sometimes as script supervisor. I’ve directed a couple of commercials and short movies and helped on a ton of others. Then one day I just thought ‘why not try and make my own tiny short film-looking video game?’. I wanted to get to know how to do this, and maybe sometime switch to the video-game industry if the experience was satisfying. I expected this first game dev experiment to take the same amount of time/energy/money than making a short movie would take. What a sweet summer child I was.

What surprised you most about working in the game’s industry and the process of making and releasing games?

I can’t really say I’m working in the game industry, I just made a video game with a handful of friends helping me over. I learned a quantity of things I never expected to learn, and I keep learning more every single day. The process of production is insanely different between films and games, did you know that? I thought I was going for an easy ride because I was making such a ‘film-like’ game, but the never-sated monster of programming crushed my naive mind hard. Seriously, programming is 50% of any game making, even narrative ones. Imagine me diving into it, having no clue of that. The wise part of my brain is telling me that I should definitely get an internship in a big studio for some time, to see how it’s all working. Doing things autodidactically feels nice for a time but might the death of me in the long run.

Were there any particular sources of inspiration for Answer Knot, particularly the narrative?

Sooooo, again, the idea was to make a tiny game in a couple of months, in a simple, learning by doing process. Now that I look back on it, and at the extent the project took, I would’ve worked way more on the game design, level design and scenario… it feels so sloppy to me now.

Source of inspiration there is, yes: at the time I had ran into this YouTube short, thought “cool story”, and created a plot on quite the same idea – having someone on the phone, and strange things happen to that someone progressively. See, no real invention here!

Answer Knot Menu Screenshot
Screenshot of the menu screen from Naraven Games’ first title Answer Knot.

How did you go about finding the right team for the project?

I just went around my network of friends and colleagues, going “hey guys wanna sail with me on a game project?”. About 15 different people worked on Answer Knot. I already had a really solid team of pros I met on movie projects, that helped cover brilliantly the cinematographic parts (sound design, music, voice acting, 2D visuals).

I happen to be friends with a voice actress that played in Beyond: Two Souls and that I thought would fit June perfectly. Lucky me, she agreed to record June’s voice without asking for her usual rates. Even the characters in the pictures and the voices on the radio are real-life actors. Fun fact: we had a shooting session for the pictures of June & Zach, and they were available together only 1 single day. Every picture of June or Zach you see in the game has been taken in Geneva, on the exact same day.

About the 3D art, a game student did most of it, because he really liked the project. And then came the very hard, very long hunt for a programmer/unity artist. In total, 6 different programmers worked on Answer Knot, bit by bit, struggling to catch up on the work the previous ones did and sometimes crunching it for the worse. I got let down quite a bit during this long journey, I’m not gonna lie. The core of project development is to keep going anyway – and at some points, I really, really wondered how I would ever make it through.

Did you encounter any major setbacks during production or release, what effect did this have?

Oh I already talked about the programmer issue, but I’m gonna say this again: people, please, hire your programmer as soon as possible (day 1 sounds good), choose a talented/reliable one (super important) and be ready to do anything to keep them on board. Switching programmers in the middle of a project is like switching to macOS with all your PC-exclusive plugins! But yeah some people just like to watch the world burn.

How long has the process taken in total, from conception to release?

From the time I brainstormed the idea with my friend to the day it launched on Steam: 2 and a half years. But I did not work on it full time at all, big breaks for other job-related projects were taken, (mental health breaks too), and people that help you with free work when they’ve got nothing else to do. Should’ve it been a straight line, Answer Knot could’ve been out in 4 months. 

Is there anything you would do differently if you’d had the experience you do now?

Short answer: everything. Hire people more wisely, schedule better, learn to do way more by myself to not depend on someone else’s mood. Take way more time on the writing and game designing part even though it’s the easiest/fastest part for me. Playtest as early as possible of course, playtest the soul out of the game even if you feel like the tester will have a butchered experience. Build a community for the start and not freaking two weeks before you plan to release!

But if I had to just choose one thing: include the programming part day one in my production schedule. Not as a post-production kind of thing (I used to think the programming part occurred like editing occurs in film production… lol). Lost a year and a half because of that. 

What can we expect from Naraven Studios in the future?

Honestly, I’m super fed up with 3D stuff and big teams. Next project (I’m already working on right now) will be FMV with 2D interfaces, so I could go almost as a solo-dev. I plan on it being waaaay longer than Answer Knot, and with a lot more characters. But can’t tell you much more, it’s so early yet. Stay tuned!

It seems as though Answer Knot was very much a learning curve! We congratulate Julia on her determination and look forward to seeing what Naraven Games creates next!

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