Interview – Amora Bettany of MiniBoss Studio

 

Hard at work making something fun and addictive, no doubt.

An older photo of Pedro and Amora of MiniBoss.

On April 17th, staff writer Isaac Smith conducted an interview with Amora Bettany of MiniBoss Studio, based out of São Paulo, Brazil.

I’d like to get started if you’re all ready.

Sure, sure! Let’s do this!

All right! First question is: who is MiniBoss Studio?

Okay, so, for a few years, it’s been Pedro and I, but always with friends. It always kind of depends on the project, who we collaborate with. There have been tons of different partnerships, but I think the core would be Pedro and I. And now for the past few weeks, Heidy has joined what we consider to be MiniBoss studios. I think the simple answer would be Pedro, Heidy and me.

Okay! So, what do each of you do in the company? Does everyone do everything, or do you each have a specialty?

You could say Pedro does a little bit of everything. Depending on the project, if we’re collaborating with a programmer, he would do art, but he really does everything. In the latest project we’ve been making, we’ve done mostly art. I’m always kind of focused on art that is not pixel, because I just enjoy hi-res art more. Animating, portraits of characters talking to each other, a bunch of concept art, promotional art, box art. That kind of stuff is usually designed by me. I usually just try to focus more on the characters. Pedro focuses more on backgrounds and other stuff. But we like to implement our art ourselves, even if it means just a little bit of programming. I don’t like making the art and saying to someone, “Here’s the assets! Have fun!” I like putting it in the game, testing, changing, tweaking. Pedro does that a lot. He always ends up doing a bunch of stuff which wasn’t really his original role.

I think it’s interesting that every game programmer ends up having to learn skills that they didn’t plan on learning. It’s cool that you both come from art, and had to learn to program to make your own games.

Yeah, it’s useful! For small games and small teams, it’s kind of essential to have everyone to know a little bit of everything. Also, you have to respect that someone else might be better at that department. Maybe we want to do a little bit of programming, but then the programmer will come and just fix everything we messed up, and make it better. There have been projects where Pedro has done all of the programming, like our gem games, or the first version of Out There, Somewhere.

Heidy has joined very recently, and she’s doing everything that doesn’t have to do with making the game itself. You know, everything people-related: Twitter, Facebook, the blog. She’s taking care of everything outside of making the game.

I noticed that your website doesn’t mention her! It made me think she must be pretty new to the team.

Very recent, yeah! We’re still figuring out how to officialize it. Maybe a new photo set!

You’re based out of Brazil, but most of your games are more popular outside of South America. Do you find it difficult to market your games to North American and European audiences?

It depends! Ever since we started making games, we’ve never focused on Brazil. I always think about making a game that’s originally Portuguese, using our culture, based in a Brazilian city, but we haven’t done it yet. Every reference we do to our Brazilian culture is very vague. And we always collaborate on games with people who live in North America or Europe. It was just the path we took. Sometimes Brazilians are like, “Hey, you’re Brazilian! Why don’t you make something for us?” And we really should do that sometime!

So, the next question I have is about the type of games you guys make. Most successful studios make games that are a lot bigger than Towerfall and Out There, Somewhere. What makes you guys want to make small games, and how do you make your small games successful?

That’s a hard question, because success has never been something planned. We’ve tried working with publishers, who tell us our games have to sell, or have to be a huge success, and that never works! Big huge companies like Nintendo or Sony know what to do and have their fan base, but for us it’s like having a band record an indie album and do small things. We make things we enjoy playing! That’s always the metaphor I use. If people like playing it, that’s a success. If people end up buying it as a consequence, great! But that’s never been the goal. We never try to depend on the game selling. If it sells enough for us to make our next game, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, we’ll keep making games anyway. Towerfall was the first thing that we worked on that actually sold!

By the way, I appreciate you speaking English for the interview! I know it’s not your first language, but you spend so much time working with English-speakers and speaking it, that it doesn’t seem like a problem.

Yeah, it’s not too difficult, but sometimes I get a little lost!

I understand completely!

Ender of friendships.

MiniBoss’ first big game, a couch multiplayer arena game: Towerfall Ascension.

Let’s talk a little more about Towerfall. You said it was your first successful game. What was the development process like? What do you think led to it being successful?

I think we got a little lucky that the timing was good. There weren’t many games with the idea of couch multiplayer. At the time, the first version was for the Wii and the Wii didn’t have many games. At the time, I was still very wired to think in traditional, bad ways of character designs. You know, the girl has to wear pink and have her boobs popping out a little bit. I would never stop to think about it, and then Matt (Thorson) had the idea to do the sprites where the girl wears blue, and the guy wears pink, and nobody is sexualized. When he told me about it, I said, “Wow! Yes! I want to do that!” It was so different. Nobody was doing that. So I think it was a combination of so many good things. Everyone was so passionate about it.

Towerfall: Ascension Characters

The diverse and awesome chacters of Towerfall.

We knew Matt from before, because we used some of his tools he had made. He has been building stuff for the gamedev community for years. He knew about us because we were friends with Chevy (Ray Johnston), and we lived together at the time. We had just released Deep Dungeons of Doom with Bossa Studios for the OUYA, so they saw our pixel art there, and they thought that our art would fit with the project they were making on their own. Towerfall was very different back then! I think it was around April or May around 2013 when he messaged Pedro, asking if he would like to collaborate, and do some pixel art. I told Pedro that I really wanted to make the characters. I didn’t mind if they wouldn’t have me on the team! I wouldn’t have minded if Pedro had to sign the drawings for me. I wanted to be the one making the characters, because I knew I would do a better job of it that Pedro! He’s better with backgrounds, I’m better with characters. When I sent Matt the first doodles of the characters, he looked and them and just went, “Yeah, I want you on the team!” That’s how it started.

We never really talked about money or contracts. The connection between all of us was just so good. Everyone was so passionate about making the game that it never felt like a job. It just felt like this awesome, precious, happy things we got to do because we were so lucky. After that, we went to Vancouver, in September, because we were trying to wrap it up. We thought it’d be easier if we were all in the same place. So we went there to work with them, and we kept changing our flights back to Brazil, from one month, to two months, to three. We were just waking up, working on Towerfall all day, and then playing Mario Kart and going to bed. It was this intense development, and we never got tired of playtesting it. It was the first game I felt I could playtest all day and never get sick of it. We all just did our best. We never really wanted to stop working on it. It was very hard to say, “Okay, let’s stop making it better, because it has to be released at some point, right?” And people really liked it! Makes me happy.

It’s a great game! I’ve enjoyed it on a couch with my friends countless times. So, thank you for making it!

You’re welcome!

Out There, Somewhere

The logo for MiniBoss’ puzzle platformer, Out There, Somewhere

Out There, Somewhere was the next game that was successful. It’s a remake of a game the you released previously. Was it for a Ludum Dare or Game Jam? Why remake that game and not any of the others you’ve made?

Well, Out There, Somewhere was actually the first game we released. It wasn’t from any jam. Pedro was making it on his spare time, like a personal little thing. At the time, we were working for this company making mobile games. It was really awful. We worked there every day, and at night, we had to finish this game that we had with this other company, a freelance thing. It was very intense and bad, having to work for this mobile game company. That was 2011, I think. So Pedro started Out There as a venting project, making whatever he wanted to make. But that was the spare time of the spare time. I was just helping at the beginning, so it was mostly his. After a while, we went to a coffee place and talked for a few hours about how we could make it into a full game. We really felt like we had to go for the experience of releasing a game, because we hadn’t done that. We had a bunch of jam games and demos that won prizes. People knew of us, but we had never said, “This is our game, buy it!” We wanted to know what that was like. Out There was the project we used to get that experience. It took us a year to finish the GameMaker version, and then we sent it to Steam. There wasn’t a Greenlight thing yet. They said yes, after a while. But then, by that time, we knew there was a bunch of things in the game we wanted to fix. And it was hard, because we were using a very old version of GameMaker. I think it was GM.1. It didn’t have support for Mac, and it had a lot of bugs. At that time, it was just before TowerFall, we were working on Deep Dungeons of Doom. Our friend Chevy was developing this engine called Flashpunk 2, and we got the idea of maybe remaking the whole game, so we could have a “real version” that was for Steam. Because then people would really know about it, people would buy it. We didn’t want to deal with all of the GameMaker bugs, and not having a Mac version, that sort of thing. So, there was a friend of ours, in London, named Murillo, and he was a very good programmer. He was the main programmer for that version, Pedro was making it with him. I fixed a bunch of art that I wanted, we tweaked so many of things that we didn’t like. And then, we finally felt comfortable enough to put it on a big thing like Steam. But that took us another year! So yeah, that’s the whole story.

Well, that’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know! I understand the timeline of studios with only two or three people. Sometimes you want to remake something, and it does take a long time to do it! I remember the development process of FEZ, which just took ages to come out. But when it did, it was worth it.

Sure! It’s so hard, predicting everything that’s going to go wrong, and all the time you’re going to feel burned out. And it’s a very personal thing.

The creative process is tough!

It is!

Speaking of that, you have a couple of projects that are in development right now. Can you talk a little bit about those?

Sure! We actually paused development on Skytorn for a little bit, because it’s a huge project. We’ve been working on that for a few years. Noel (Berry) and Matt had the idea of remaking Celeste, because it was a project they did for a jam. It was a very small game originally. And when they thought about remaking it, they said, “Hey, would you guys help us with that?” And we said, “Sure, it shouldn’t take long!” *laughs* But then, we were all having a lot of fun making it a big, real thing. I got more and more involved, and Nintendo was interested. And we want to release it as soon as we can, because the Nintendo Switch doesn’t have a lot of games yet. The sooner it’s there, the better the game sells, but we also want to make sure it’s perfect. So we talked about focusing on Celeste until it’s done, and then we can go calmly back to Skytorn, so it doesn’t get too messy.

Look for Celeste on the Switch in a couple of months!

Logos for two of MiniBoss’ upcoming games.

You said you didn’t really enjoy doing pixel art, but both of your most successful games (Towerfall and Out There, Somewhere) were primarily pixel art. Do any of your new projects have higher-res art in them, or is that something you’re planning on doing in the new future?

For Skytorn, I was making the portraits of the characters in high-res art, but everything in the interface is pixel art. But when you see the face moving and talking, I was doing it in high-res. And we were scaling it back down to the game resolution, so it looks kind of… blurry. But the whole Skytorn interface was supposed to be glitchy and weird, because it’s old technology, but it really fits the down-res effect. We added some glitches, like we did with Out There, Somewhere.

But we were doing the same thing with Celeste. At some point we were like, “Yeah, this is really blurry.” And we considered remaking all the portraits in pixel art, like we did with Towerfall. Because in Towerfall, you know the character selection screen, and they have this pose?

Yeah!

Well, I did the art in high-res, and Pedro did the pixel on top of it. So we thought about doing that with Celeste, but it didn’t work, because it’s so many frames of the characters talking. So we thought about testing it out with the pure high-res art. We were mixing high-res and pixel art, just to see how it looked. And it looked awesome! I remember tweeting about it, saying, “We’re considering doing the UI in high-res,” and we had people go, “No, please! Don’t do this! Please, no, never mix those two things!” But it looks so cool! So, we’re doing it anyway! So now everything in-game is pixel art, and everything around it is high-res. We really like it.

Promotional art for MiniBoss game "Celeste."

Mixing hi-res and pixel art works if you’re awesome, apparently!

That’s great!

Yeah, and I get to make the thing that I like!

I’m glad you finally get to be in your wheelhouse a little bit. Do you guys have any plans to make a full game in high-res, or does Pedro just do pixel art?

Well, he loves pixel art, but he’s kind of tired, too. He’s a very good artist, actually, with painted backgrounds, and brushstrokes. We always talk about at some point making a high-res game. It’s never happened yet. We always get stuck in some part of the process, because we don’t have the experience. We don’t know how to do it without it looking like a Flash game. It’s very tricky. We really want to try making a game in a style that’s very sketchy looking, you know. Doodle-y. Not clean art, like something that came out of someone’s sketchbook.

Like Braid, perhaps?

Yeah, like Braid, or Don’t Starve. You know, something that’s clearly hand drawn. Someday, maybe!

I met Ben Prunty (composer of the soundtrack to FTL: Faster Than Light), and he mentioned he was working on a project with you. Which of the projects you mentioned was that?

Skytorn! It’s cool that you asked about Ben. We love working with him!

He seems like a really cool guy!

Yeah! The music he’s making for Skytorn just fits so perfectly, because it’s kind of spacey. It has this guitar stuff going on, and it’s just perfect. It was really nice when he said yes, because we didn’t think he would! We didn’t know who to invite for Skytorn, and I remember being like, “Well, there’s Ben Prunty,” and I used to listen to the FTL soundtrack every day on the way to work. So, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask! The worst thing that could happen would be for him to say no. But he was like, “Oh yeah, totally! Let’s do this!” And now I can’t see the game with music being done by anyone else.

Now, you said you put Skytorn on the back burner for now to work on Celeste. Do you have a potential release date for Celeste at this point, or a timeline that you’d like to follow?

We’ll try for the next couple months. But we can’t really say if it’s going to be possible. We released the trailer saying, “This year! This year for sure!” *laughs* We’re kind of crunching on it right now, to try and finish it as soon as we can, maybe this month or the next. But you never know how much polishing you’re going to need, or how much you’re going to need to tweak. But yeah, hopefully the next couple months!

Well, I’m excited for the release of the remake of Celeste, and of Skytorn when it happens! Thank you very much for the interview! Keep making games!
Thank you for inviting me, and for being into our work!


It’s also worth mentioning that MiniBoss (spearheaded by Pedro) is developing a tabletop game as well: Tribes of Balbur. We didn’t touch on in in the interview, but there’s a lot of cool shots and info up on the MiniBoss Blog. Pedro also often puts up some killer pixel art tutorials, if that’s your bag!

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About

Isaac Smith is a lifelong gamer and musician. He is deep into the indie game scene, and is a dabbling programmer who enjoys making games and writing music for them. As a writer, he began at Another Gamer's Blog, a blog dedicated to the discussion of video games, their history, construction, social impact and artistic merit. He does much of the same at his new home, here at Last Token Gaming!

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