Interview with Amir Rajan of A Dark Room, A Noble Circle, The Ensign, and Future Projects: Sasha, The Builder.
Amir Rajan is the creator of A Noble Circle, adapter of the #1 hit iOS game A Dark Room (originally created for the web by Michael Townsend), and creator of the prequel to A Dark Room: The Ensign. His games conjure deep, swaying, and often conflicting emotional responses in the players through the use of original storytelling techniques. The worlds he creates are visually simple, yet intensely profound and complex.
Today we chatted about his experiences as an indie developer, his thoughts on his projects, another prequel to A Dark Room, and his next game Sasha.
Brian: What I found to be so striking about my experience with A Dark Room was the way the progression of the experience made me feel compelled to push forward despite the slow but steady realization that the community in the game, the community I started and oversaw, was being crippled by my advancement (literally enslaved). As more people joined my village, my resources expanded, and more features were unlocked, the stronger the urge was for me to drive ahead. It reminds me of how, in real-life, when people gain status and wealth in the world, they start to lack sympathy for those around them, blinded by their own ambitions. In short, the feeling of guilt was present, but it was overshadowed by my desire for growth and exploration in an expanding universe. Was this part of your intent, to have users experience these types of emotions? Knowing that this made some people quit the game, does that feel like a success for having evoked such strong emotions?
Amir: The game started as a web game and I (I'd like to say) "re-envisioned" it to a mobile medium. The web version didn't have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition. The builder was simply an NPC that was used to build stuff. Mentally I really connected with the builder, and wanted to answer my own questions: Who was she? Why was she helping me? So the emotions in the game were definitely deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
It's funny actually, someone reached out to me on twitter about the slaves transition and how "it wasn't his choice". He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave driving army.
I think the emotions are exasperated by the fact that there aren't any pictures. In fact, these kind of emotional responses (specifically not having control) were what drove me to create the moral events in The Ensign, where you had a direct choice of whether you would "take food from the family" or not.
...the emotions... were...deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
Brian: In A Dark Room (and likewise in The Ensign), the player has minimal knowledge of what the game is before starting. You take it so far as to only have one screenshot in the App Store, and it is of the very start of the game. Doing so doesn't spoil, but rather, excites attention and curiosity. Do you think that this sense of curiosity is what drew people in? Likewise, do you think it may have scared others away?
Amir: Yes on both accounts. Michael and I did that deliberately so that the experience wouldn't be spoiled. After we hit the number one spot, and did an update to the game, [one] of the people on the Apple app approval process actually rejected our update because our description was "too short". I was really, really pissed about that, but we got it overridden and [were] allowed to update. It's tough balancing the "business" aspect of selling games, but we had faith that word of mouth recommendation would trump a long drawn out sales pitch on our app description page. We have a few accolades on there now. Still trying to find a good balance. [Having] good reviews certainly helps.
Brian: What did it feel like to see A Dark Room hit #1 in the App Store? Did you ever think it would gain such popularity?
Amir: When it hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock. Definitely was not in a good state of mind, surprisingly.
This expert from my blog explains it well:
"This is the best way I can describe what I’m feeling right now: I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and the lottery commission has revealed 5 of the 6 numbers. And so far, I’ve gotten those 5 numbers right. I know I’ve got at least the winnings for those 5 numbers in the bag. But now I’m waiting for the 6th number… that jackpot number that changes your life forever. The lottery commission hasn’t revealed the 6th number yet, they haven’t even told me when they’ll show the 6th number. So I’m stuck in this weird limbo, where others see success and all I can do is temper expectations, be “responsible”, and move forward as if that 6th number will be wrong…. still number 1, just checked."
I didn't sleep well for almost a month. Every hour or so I'd wake up and see if I were still number one. Still never got used to it
When [A Dark Room] hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock...I didn't sleep well for almost a month.
Brian: I can only imagine what that feels like.
Amir: Yea, we aren't prepared for that kind of success. When all was said and done Michael and I made about 700k that year we hit #1. 200k during that 18-day period at the number one spot. The rest was long tail trickles. Sadly, after taxes, Apple’s cut, and splits…both of us came away with about 270k. So that part was also not fun to realize. [I] was able to buy a house and pay it off though ^_^. Now I live mortgage free and don’t need to chase the mighty dollar so much anymore.
Brian: You spoke to some of the differences between the original web-based version of A Dark Room in the in-game commentary. Which difference did you find to be the most critical for the mobile experience?
Amir: Pacing and the builder's commentary/storyline. I felt that's what put the game over the top. The mobile version is about 3 times faster than the web version. The game is a bit more challenging too. The DPS for soldiers, snipers, and feral terrors was nearly doubled in the mobile version... rage inducing I'm sure. I didn't expect the builder's interactions would be so powerful. But I do feel that's what "made" the game…Your thoughts on this?
Brian: Pacing is so key in gameplay, and I find that in a mobile experience players would have struggled with a slower pace. As for the difficultly, I actually found it to be rather well balanced, but I tend to enjoy a bit of a challenge. For me, "dying" wasn't too frustrating, but more so, I blamed myself for venturing too far, too soon.
Amir: The Ensign was definitely an extension of that "your fault" mentality. I wanted to make sure it was 100% fair. And yea, the early moments of the game when the forest opens up was key. Didn't want people to play for 30 seconds and leave a bad review. That plus the ability to pick it up, play a little bit, then put it back down was extremely important too.
Brian: A Dark Room starts with darkness when you meet the girl, and comes full circle with darkness returning when the girl leaves. It’s a powerful, emotional moment in the experience, and for me, a point where everything felt like it was crashing down and at the point of no return. This isn’t a question.
Amir: The fire going out when she left was deliberate. Not sure how many people caught that.
Brian: You mentioned how you have never actually met Michael Townsend, the original creator. Do you think you two will ever meet?
Amir: If Trump becomes president I may move to Canada.
Brian: Not a bad idea.
Amir: He said I'm welcome to his couch :-) Hopefully we'll meet soon, but definitely haven't met yet. It's on my bucket list ^_^ Do you find it weird that we haven't met? Maybe it's poetic that we never do :-P
Brian: Actually, not really, not in this day. I collaborated with an artist on a web-based project I created, and we haven't met yet. We follow each other on Instagram though.
Amir: Cool, cool. The composer I [worked] with for ANC is in Brazil. Haven't met him either. But yea, I agree with you. Don't find it too weird personally.
Brian: In playing A Noble Circle and The Ensign, there is a clear, anti pay-to-win, in-app purchase message. In my opinion, in-app purchases, for the most part, replace what was once the designed challenge of a game into something that is now constructed, often purposely, to be purchased for the sake of completion. Which, in turn, taints the experience, removing the fun and entertainment elements for something that feels like it is run by finance people instead of creative folks. What are your thoughts on the direction mobile games have long been heading and do you foresee a backlash?
Amir: I've struggled with this myself. I'm hoping there is a backlash... but it's unlikely. Premium games are a "lost cause". I quoted it because I don't think AAA will go that route. As for indie game devs, it may provide an opportunity to thrive (since we aren't competing with shops like EA). And we also don't need as much money either. I'm happy netting $170 a day. And can live comfortably off of that for the foreseeable future. But I do want to build a culture of "gifting" games and "free to start" games like POTUS and Kung Fury do that very tastefully. So my next game might be "free to start". And maybe ANC will become "free to start" too. You may have noticed that ANC - Prologue is a free offering. But I'm not ready to jump ship yet. We'll see how this year goes.
Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Brian: From A Dark Room to A Noble Circle it appears that a strong motif of yours seems to be a world that is visually simple, yet with an underlining complexity of somber emotions. And these emotions and layers of details get richer as the player progresses further, learning more of the world around them. What attracts you to this style of gameplay and this form of story telling?
Amir: I think it works well given the current mobile landscape. Given that most games do exactly the opposite of what I'm doing. When I was a kid, I wanted to get into building video games, simply because it was a way to share an experience. Still remember the shock when Aries died in FF7 (spoiler alert). I feel I have a knack for distilling an experience down to its essence. Which works well for me since I don't have the resources to build a fully 3d or gorgeous 2d game. Only so much one person can do.
When I start working on a game, there is a central emotion theme in mind. For ADR it was "the feeling of loss" (specifically the builder). For The Ensign, it was "cognitive dissonance", that feeling when you go against your ideals. For ANC, it’s "a rush of awe". Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Brian: I’ve released a lot of free custom maps and levels for first-person shooters, so I can relate to the notion of creating something primarily by yourself. What motivates you when you are devoting countless hours to your craft, knowing it may yield little to no money (what if it gets lost in the App Store abyss)?
Amir: [I] always worry about how long my philosophies will bare fruit. So far I'm keeping my head above water. My general ideals is that I only want to build things that I myself would play/buy. I've been lucky (very very lucky) in finding an audience that operates on the same wave length that I do. There are 80+ million iOS devices out there. If I can capture even 0.01% of that in perpetuity [then] I'm happy. Cause I get to do exactly what I want to do: create.
And yes, I've been called pretentious multiple times XD (I even make fun of it in ANC). So, in short. I'll keep doing it until the well dries up. Then I'll figure things out then. [I] just don't want to sacrifice my ideals too much.
I've been called pretentious multiple times.
Brian: While A Noble Circle has a similar visual and thematic style to that of A Dark Room and The Ensign, it differs greatly in terms of gameplay and the sounds that are the backbone of the experience. What inspired you to explore this style of gameplay?
Amir: Geometry Dash. Such a fun game! That and it was a spark of inspiration from creating a virtual Go board. When you placed a "stone" on the board. I wanted to capture a sound that would "do the move justice". You get a nice "click" on a real go board, but in a digital medium I wanted to do something different. So it would randomly play a note from a pentatonic scale. You could almost make music while playing the game. So that's when I decided to take the rhythm based idea, plus the random music generation, plus Flatland and Ayn Rand's Anthem and put them together.
Brian: At the end of A Noble Circle, I just bounced around for a while. At first, because I wanted to see if there was more, but then later, just to enjoy the sounds and music I was producing.
Amir: You wouldn't be the first :-) Have you seen this video?
Amir: I made a musical score, and created a small AI to play the musical score for me. Just a silly little Easter egg. I wonder if anyone will actually try to compose the "perfect" piece. Would be cool if someone did ^_^
Brian: I want to circle back to your next game, Sasha, and the theme of “unrequited love”. What can you tell me about it? Earlier you mentioned the composer for A Noble Circle that you collaborated with, Rafael Langoni Smith. Will this project involve others as well?
Amir: Not sure about collaborations yet. It's barely in pre-production. But I wanted to explore the idea of loving something that doesn't love you back. In this case Sasha is a Tamagotchi style character. Almost an OS that you take care of. Things don't go as planned toward the end of the game let's say :-D ...Sasha is inspirited by Notch's game, Drowning [in Problems]. He was able to convey a narrative without explicit "cut scenes" or story line elements. It's really amazing.
I wanted to explore the idea of loving something that doesn't love you back.
Brian: Are you envisioning a 2D, black-and-white world like the previous titles?
Amir: Yep, I'm envisioning a B&W canvas. Sasha will be fully animated though. I think I can swing that (given that it's just one character). She may end up "making" mini games for you too. Parts of the progression will definitely be inspired by Drowning though. So I'd expect a similar game mechanic to further the story.
Brian: One of the things I truly love about your games is the minimalist details in both the visuals and descriptions, because this forces me, as a player, to fill in those details, to wonder, to be curious, to be eager to learn more, and to decide for myself what the meaning is. Am I an alien? Is this my world? What does this deserted town look like? Should I feel bad for these people? Are the defectors crazed like zombies or just disgruntled? Is the dusty path a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Again: not a question.
Amir: I hope The Ensign helped fill in those details a bit more. The Builder (prequel to The Ensign) will explore the relationship between Builder and Admiral.
Brian: If you had unlimited resources, time, and budget, what would you build?
Amir: I'd do a MOBA. Where players are like those from Dark Souls. So emphasis on swordplay, parries, etc. So stick a level 1 DaS character in the game and "go". Then you can level up to 120 by the time the game is over. Of course level would be faster :-P No one has a specific role, and you grow into the role you want to play. I'm addicted to StarCraft and LoL by the way. I tell my wife to hide my mouse during the week so I don't play it all day.
The Builder (prequel to The Ensign) will explore the relationship between Builder and Admiral.
Brian: This next question may sound crazy, considering your games are so beautifully packaged, feeling so complete in their simplicity, structure, and story…But do you ever think about making The Ensign into a larger, longer, more expansive experience?
Amir: It was initially going to be an infinite world, you go until you die. I could see the ADR world being extremely rich. Following the history of the Wanderers. So the final installment of the main story line will eventually come. Specifically the history of the Builder... I guess that's what ADR, and TE have shaped up to be. So another game may come that explores other historical aspects of the race and their universe.
Brian: What advice do you have to aspiring indie developers out there?
Amir: Start small, get something out the door in 6 weeks. Then iterate. [I] did this Reddit post that goes into details about it. [Given] all the choices, you can get analysis paralysis. So start with that [post]... build something text based even :-D
Brian: Other than StarCraft and LoL, what are some of your favorite and most influential video games, books, and movies?
Brian: I was so happy when FF Tactics was released for iOS. The perfect excuse to play it again.
Amir: Yep! I really want a PvP based game around that concept. The storyline of the game was so great.
Brian: I want to finish the interview by just reading you a few, nice quotes from the App Store:
Amir: Those reviews are the strongest reason for me to keep building :-) It's the best thing in the world I tell ya. And I'm hoping with ANC people will be more receptive to "unfinished games for now but I'll keep working on it" kind of approach to development. Seems to work well for that game at least.
Brian: For me, it worked.
Amir: [I'm Releasing] an update to that today by the way :-) You finally get to slide "bounce" into the lab.
Brian: I'll check it out! Thank you again for joining me for this interview. I really appreciate you taking the time. And I'm looking forward to your future releases.
Amir: I love this stuff...thanks for reaching out Brian, and please gift my games to your friends and family ^_^ and tell them to pay it forward if they liked it.
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Brian Riggsbee lives in San Francisco CA. He enjoys gaming, writing, creating art, practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, chasing adorable dogs, and spending time with his wife and boy.