• Dusty Weis

PixelSmiths Ep. 1: Firegirl w/ Julien Ribassin & Gabriel Miller

Updated: Feb 28


An unlikely duo blaze a new trail with a stylized take on the rogue-like genre.

On this episode, Larry & Clinton talk with Julien & Gabe, creators of Firegirl: Hack & Splash Rescue, out now on Steam. Firegirl is a 2.5D rogue-like where you take on the role of a new firefighter, fighting fires and monsters as she works to save her city, and grow her fire brigade.


In this fun conversation, they talk about Gabe's 'claim to fame' working on Strike Vector, Julien's rogue-like curse, drunken times at BitSummit, a driving game with dead fish, and the way their new game evolved from concept to finish.


Other games that are discussed include: illumine, Disney's Magical Quest, Cuphead, NetHack, Rogue Legacy, Hades, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES), Spelunky, and RemiLore


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Find Firegirl: Hack & Splash Rescue on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1608550/Firegirl_Hack_n_Splash_Rescue/


Visit their website: https://dejima.games/


Follow Julien on twitter: https://twitter.com/DejimaGames


Transcript:


Larry Kilgore III:

Video games are an art form. From the bits and bytes of the old school arcade cabinets to the technological advancements of the modern era, video games have been a way for creators to tell stories in an interactive environment that can be shared the world over.


Clinton Bader:

Developers, designers, visionaries and storytellers, like the artisans of old, it's their blood, sweat, and tears that go into crafting these unique and innovative experiences for players. But oftentimes, the independent artists get lost in the overwhelming space that is today's hectic gaming market. On PixelSmiths, it's our goal to be a platform for those artists to celebrate their drive, their vision and the work it takes to create their art.


Larry Kilgore III:

On this episode, we talk to the two-man team behind Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue, a new 2.5D roguelike platformer. This is PixelSmiths.


Larry Kilgore III:

Hello, and welcome to PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore III, podcast creator and video game enthusiast.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton Paperthin Bader, esports broadcaster and commentator. We're here to really highlight a space that can oftentimes be overwhelmed with choices, and we strive to bring you some of the best and brightest creators to keep an eye on.


Larry Kilgore III:

Today, we are joined by Julien Ribassin, founder and developer of Dejima Games, and Gabriel Miller, freelance video game artist and designer. They are the creators of Firegirl, a new game out on Steam. Julien, Gabriel, thanks for joining us, guys.


Gabriel Miller:

Thanks for having us.


Julien Ribassin:

Thanks for having us.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, Julien, we'll start with you first. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background as a game developer?


Julien Ribassin:

So I founded Dejima back in 2015 after spending a lot of time looking for a job while I was living in Japan. Couldn't find a job that really suited me. I decided to try full-time game developments. I gave myself a year, basically. The challenge for me was, am I capable of making a game in a year and realizing it and then decide if I continue or not? Obviously, it worked pretty well because I'm still here a few years later. And yeah, that's how I started. I've been making video games on the side for more than 10 years, but I've started making games professionally five, six years ago, basically.


Larry Kilgore III:

Gabe, how about you? Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background as a game artist and creator?


Gabriel Miller:

So I started my career in game development at the University of Oklahoma working at the K20 Center doing educational game art. After a few years of that, I decided to move to Korea. Since then, I've been doing a lot of little indie games and just personal projects and working professionally as an English teacher, because I wanted to have the freedom to just do cool projects and to not feel the pressure of like, "Oh, I have to take a job if it comes along, even if it's a job I don't like, even if it's a game that I'm not interested in." I didn't want to have to have that pressure. So having a different daytime career, especially English teaching in Asia where you only have to work like three hours a day, was a career move that made sense for me. I still live in Korea, and while visiting the BitSummit... Was that 2016, Julien?


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, that was. It was 2016.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, so it was BitSummit in Kyoto, Japan in 2016 is when I met Julien, and I was really impressed with his game. That's where our collaboration began. But before that, I worked on a game called Strike Vector. That was probably the biggest project. And Clinton actually played that game.


Clinton Bader:

I did.


Gabriel Miller:

I meet the odd person who's actually played that game.


Clinton Bader:

There's dozens of us.


Gabriel Miller:

Did you work on that?


Julien Ribassin:

There are a lot of people who played that game game, Gabe.


Gabriel Miller:

That's true.


Clinton Bader:

I actually love that game, Gabe. That's how we met. That's how we bonded the first time, because I'm talking to you. We met at a bar, I still remember this, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah. Gabe, this guy looks kind of weird. I don't know, man."


Gabriel Miller:

I'm like everyone else. I'm just a normal guy.


Clinton Bader:

I think we had mutual friends. I think it might've met Josh or something, but-


Gabriel Miller:

I think Josh is the lynchpin.


Clinton Bader:

It sounds like it, but then you were like, "I don't know. I made this game, Strike Vector." I'm like, "What? I love Strike Vector. That's a great game." And you're looking at me like, "I don't know about this guy."


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, I thought you were just BS-ing me. No, I meet the odd person who's played Strike Vector. I think in Europe, it had a bigger following. It had a much bigger... Because it's a French game.


Julien Ribassin:

I don't think you realize how popular it was, especially when it came to consoles.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, that's true.


Julien Ribassin:

It was pretty big because there weren't that many mech fighting, dogfighting games.


Gabriel Miller:

True, yeah. The people who were worked on it, they've all gone on to be big time, especially in France. The guy, Paul, I don't know how to pronounce French names, Paul Chadeisson, apparently works on every film doing concepts and spaceships. If it's made in France, he's working on it, basically. And then these other guys have gone on to do other cool things, which is really weird that I moved to Asia, but I only work on French games, apparently.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I will say I did not play Strike Vector, but I do remember the cover art. The moment I saw it, I was like, "Oh, yeah."


Clinton Bader:

Missed out, man.


Gabriel Miller:

I think we did cool stuff.


Clinton Bader:

It's sick.


Gabriel Miller:

It was a fun project to work on. That was a real turning point where I was almost about to stop working on games, actually. But being an English teacher, just be like, "Yeah, whatever. I do my three hours of work a day teaching English and then I go home," and it's like, "Oh, we got a new spaceship for you to make. We got a new like building." I was like, "I could just do this. I don't have to work professionally as a game developer. I can just look for a cool indie project. Just always look for a cool indie project to get involved in and then I'm satisfied. I'm getting paid and everything's cool." It was a different model because everybody thinks, "Well, you got to try and get a job," but that's how I got into indie games. And now, I'm much more down that pipeline.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, meeting Julien, when I played his game, illumine, that was a big moment because he didn't have any art in his game, as far as art assets, images created by an artist [crosstalk 00:06:00].


Julien Ribassin:

I cannot draw. I can't draw.


Gabriel Miller:

He doesn't draw.


Julien Ribassin:

I can't.


Gabriel Miller:

And so it doesn't look like much, but when you play the game, it's really cool how you could see this expression of the units that you're interacting with. I really found his game engaging, and my wife played it for like 12 hours, which is a lot for her because she doesn't play a lot of games.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, your wife finished it.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, because she was really into it on the show floor. You were like, "Oh, you got to put the headphones on," because Julien's also a musician and the sound design was... It was really cool. It really was the kind of project that I was always looking to get into as an indie game developer as an artist. I'm not a programmer. I just make art. But I want to find someone who is really bringing it on the game design and on the basics of programming, but really the game design, someone who can make a product that's compelling without art.


Gabriel Miller:

If I see something that's blocks and boxes, to me that's exciting because I'm like, "Ah, this guy needs an artist. He needs someone who can draw pictures." But a lot of programmers, they're kind of doing the opposite. They're trying to program as much art as possible and they're neglecting game design and they're neglecting in their demo. It's kind of like a tech demo, is what they have. A lot of the projects I've worked on have that problem. Julien was exciting because I was like, "Dude's making whole games and they're very compelling."


Larry Kilgore III:

And you felt like you could bring your art to take it to another level?


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, because that's the opportunity. If someone already has amazing art, you can try to ride their coattails, which is kind of what I did with Strike Vector where it's like, "Wow, that art's awesome. I want to meet those artists and learn from them." And that's valid. That's a thing you can do. But the big opportunity as a artist working on games is to find someone who knows how to make a game from beginning to end, because that's actually rare. It's hard to find people who can do that.


Clinton Bader:

And so my question here, then, for Julien is how did you let Gabe convince you to work on projects with you? How did you let him bamboozle you into working with you?


Julien Ribassin:

Believe it or not, it was actually the opposite.


Clinton Bader:

Oh, really?


Julien Ribassin:

Because the story that he's painting right now isn't exactly how it happened.


Clinton Bader:

I knew it, I knew it.


Gabriel Miller:

You don't think it is? Are we doing the unreliable narrator angle?


Julien Ribassin:

I remember precisely at the booth at BitSummit in 2016 where Aram, Gabe's wife, was playing a game and really into it. She told me, "Yeah, that was one of the games that I really wanted check. I really enjoyed this. I think it's super interesting." And Gabe was standing there just looking around like, "Can we go?"


Gabriel Miller:

I wasn't interested initially because I was like, "What is that?"


Julien Ribassin:

And she really insisted, "No, you should really try." I really got along with someone who became a mutual friend, Douglas, and-


Gabriel Miller:

Oh, yeah.


Julien Ribassin:

And we mostly bonded because-


Gabriel Miller:

Shout out Douglas.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah. We partied together by the river in Kyoto. It was mostly because of this. But it's actually-


Larry Kilgore III:

Sounds like I'm missing a lot at BitSummit.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

Oh, BitSummit's a joy.


Julien Ribassin:

Yes, it is.


Gabriel Miller:

I really recommend it.


Clinton Bader:

Kyoto's awesome in general, yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

Kyoto's great, and BitSummit has such a comradery. It's a small event with real people doing stuff. It's really exciting.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah. After illumine, I did a few shows across Europe, and Oculus actually got in touch and asked me to make a prototype for a puzzle game in VR. I was very interested, obviously, but I realized that I was going to need actual artists at some points. I was looking for 3D artists, and Gabe posted on Facebook just a rendering of what it was down the street in front of his building, just a regular Seoul street, and I was absolutely blown away. I was like, "Oh, he's just not a slob that's hanging out on game shows just to drink beer, actually. He's actually really talented." And so that's how it started. I was very impressed by what he was doing.


Larry Kilgore III:

So I guess that Oculus project must've been the first thing you guys worked on but according to your website, you guys kind of started exchanging ideas after you met at BitSummit, and Firegirl is the first big project that you guys were doing together. How did you guys get onto Firegirl? Where'd the idea come from? What made you decide that Firegirl was this project that you guys were going to work on?


Julien Ribassin:

We worked on several games and none of them have ever come out, and they'll never come out. But yeah, we worked on that VR game and we worked on a 3D platformer and we worked on a weird driving game called Night Drive. So I like to say that I have a curse, is that all the video games I make end up being roguelikes. I try to make other things but at some point, it always a game with randomly-generated levels and procedural content and stuff like this.


Julien Ribassin:

And so illumine, my first game, was a roguelike and Night Drive, which is a driving game, became a procedural driving game with a procedural road. But it wasn't a driving game about racing. It was about exploring a dark road at night with weird characters that you encounter.


Clinton Bader:

Some kind of bad Stephen King movie or something.


Gabriel Miller:

Kind of.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

I was going to say, I made a lot of piles of dead fish that looked cool. I was proud of them, actually.


Julien Ribassin:

Obviously, every good driving game has huge piles of dead fish.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, procedurally generated so the piles of dead fish just show up in random places.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah.


Julien Ribassin:

Exactly.


Gabriel Miller:

Kind of, yeah. That was-


Julien Ribassin:

Varying sizes, too. But we quickly, not quickly enough, but we realized that the scope of the game was way too big and also that it was too niche. Getting people interested in the game took a lot of explaining, and it was a concept that was too complicated.


Julien Ribassin:

We kept throwing out pitch ideas and one day, Gabe came up with Firegirl. It's a game. It's called Firegirl. It's a girl, she's a firefighter, and there are fire monsters. That's it. And I immediately loved it because I really felt that it was my opportunity to make my own Castlevania game, my own 2D platformer, pixel precise platforming, very retro, Japanese arcade feel, which I really love.


Julien Ribassin:

I immediately loved the idea. I had the idea in my mind for months until I told Gabe, "Hey, remember that Firegirl idea? Want to actually work on it for a month or two and see where it gets us?" And we worked on a demo for I think a month, not more because my kid was born I think a week after I stopped working on it. It's that build that we sent to BitSummit it, and we got selected with a demo that we only worked for a month on. And we got an award at BitSummit with a more elaborate build, but a build that we spent three months on.


Julien Ribassin:

We knew we had a good idea because it was an idea that when you explain it to people, you only need two sentences and everyone understands. Oh yeah, firefighting game. 2D. Oh, cool. We miss those. And that's always the sentence we we're getting like, "Oh, yeah. Remember The Firemen on Super NES or Mickey Mouse's Magical Quest." Was that-


Gabriel Miller:

I was messing around with the game engine. I'm already forgetting the name of the game engine. It was one of the little ones. And I made a little pew pew tutorial where the guy's like, "Make the gun," but the default, it just sprayed bullets out straight and the guy was like, "Oh, that's not what we want." And I was like, "I don't know, that's like a fire hose or something. That could be kind of cool."


Gabriel Miller:

But I started thinking about Mickey's Magical Quest, if you guys remember on Super Nintendo. You get different hats and they have different-


Clinton Bader:

I remember it, yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

There's a firefighter hat and spraying the hose, you push blocks. I mean, I wasn't thinking about pushing blocks, particularly. I don't know, but I was like, "Oh, that's a mechanic I haven't seen in a while, spraying the fire hose on a 2D little thing." That was the beginning of the idea, something kind of cute.


Gabriel Miller:

For me, when I'm thinking of game ideas, I'm actually not much of a game designer. I'm not thinking about numbers or level design mechanics or something. I'm thinking more about the experience of it. Well, I want to be a cool pilot or I want to be a cool gun guy or something. And so in this one, it's like, "Okay, be a cool, kind of childish firefighter character, almost like one of these old Disney or Donald Duck things." There is death in the game, so we did go a little darker, slightly, but we didn't want it to be something thing where it's a dark game, as far as-


Larry Kilgore III:

Still wanted to at least feel light and fun.


Gabriel Miller:

It's light and fun, but even the dark element is in a fun way. It's like being a kid and playing firefighter, is the analogy I always use. I wanted to have that feeling of just childish fun and you're fighting fire monsters. That was also from that Donald Duck animation from back in the day where they're trying to put out the fire and every time he hits it with an ax, it cuts into three more.


Julien Ribassin:

That's why we wanted fire monsters, to make it fun, to give the fire personality, to make the fire a series of characters that are a little bit scary, but also a little bit goofy. They make weird noises when you put them out. They're like, "Leave me alone."


Clinton Bader:

Do you think it has a similar vibe to a Cuphead or something like that?


Gabriel Miller:

A little bit.


Clinton Bader:

A little bit?


Gabriel Miller:

We definitely went a different direction, because Cuphead is adhering to that sort of style, especially with they're high-res, illustrated animations. They're adhering to that classic Disney style. We could call it pre-classic Disney, maybe, like Steamboat Willy era of Disney.


Larry Kilgore III:

Yes.


Gabriel Miller:

I'm usually more of a 3D artist, but I'd been working on some pixel projects on my personal time. And so for me, Firegirl, it was like, "I'll take my pixel animation up a notch and try to push myself in that area."


Larry Kilgore III:

You've definitely got some variety in what you can do artistically wise, so was it just the concept itself-


Gabriel Miller:

I'm a generalist.


Larry Kilgore III:

... made you feel like the retro pixel art was really what this project needed?


Gabriel Miller:

The beginnings of the idea do kind of come from the sort of thing from a Cuphead kind of thing.


Julien Ribassin:

But also, initially the game was completely 2D. The first version of the game is completely flat and only sprites. And because we had started getting experience with Unreal Engine, the idea was from the get-go to have dynamic lighting because we have source, we have fires so we are going to have source of lighting everywhere. We can have cool-looking shadows and so on. But we quickly realized that by adding depth, those shadows were making the scene way more interesting.


Julien Ribassin:

We kept adding depth and more depth and more depth and eventually, the game became 3D. We only kept the characters in 2D. But the first version of the game, the whole environment was 2D.


Gabriel Miller:

And that drove me nuts because at first... I remember when he revealed it to me. [inaudible 00:17:51] 3D takes longer than 2D in general. That's not totally true. And so with Night Drive, that was part of the scope was too big, was like, "Oh, we have all these 3D assets." We were just going full PBR with-


Julien Ribassin:

Physical-based rendering, so shiny materials, transparent materials.


Gabriel Miller:

Sculpted 3D models and Zbrush baked into a normal map with complex materials. There's a lot you can do. It's easier than it used to be, but it's still a process to make all of that stuff. And if you need to change something, you have to go back to maybe your Zbrush sculpt, and then there's all kinds of crazy stuff that can make it take a long time.


Julien Ribassin:

For reference, making a couch, assets, sprites will take you a couple hours?


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, the whole thing.


Julien Ribassin:

But the 3D model, if it's PBR, will take you a couple days? But if you need 10 couches in the game on top of shelves and kitchen sinks, you see how things can bloom up and get out of control. And that's why making pixel games is usually faster.


Gabriel Miller:

Yes. And with Firegirl, part of the shuffle of, "Okay, we've gone the wrong way with what we're trying to do, with what we can do," not the wrong way, but like, "Let's try to refocus ourselves. If we're going to do a project, let's not do something that's going to kill us for years. Let's try to do something small and focused."


Larry Kilgore III:

Try and make it more manageable.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, more manageable. Part of that was like, "Okay, okay. Everything's pixel. It'll take me like a minute to make a couch. And then okay, make it destructible. Not a big deal. That's an animation. Okay, I just pop up all these sprites up on..." We use Trello to manage our stuff and it's like, "Okay, I'm just animating sprites and exporting sprite sheets and putting them up on Trello. It doesn't take that long."


Gabriel Miller:

And then this guy's like, "Okay, I got to demo for you to look at. Check this out." It's a little 3D. He took my sprites and he was actually... He's taking my 2D sprites and he's actually making his own 3D models out of them, which is not normally how you do that. Normally, you make a mesh and then you texture it and export it, but he's like, "Oh look what I can do with all of your sprites." He's constructing kind of a shallow 3D thing.


Julien Ribassin:

Those weren't my favorite moments because I knew that he was going to be complaining. Deep inside, you knew that it was much better.


Gabriel Miller:

It looks better, but at the same time I was like, "I know this isn't going to stop, because you're going to go, 'Why isn't it more 3D?' No, no, no, no. We won't do that." But then we did.


Gabriel Miller:

At a certain point, it was like he's constructing these elaborate things with little cards of sprites, and there's some problems that can come from that. But it's like, "At this point, I'll just make a model and I'll texture it. We got to come up with a system for doing it that way if we're going to just go this in on making everything 3D." Fast forward to now when the game's done and it's like so much of the game is in 3D. Mostly, it's the characters and the fire and some of the effects and things that give it that 2D. We ended up going all the way on the 3D stuff, and I'm glad we did.


Gabriel Miller:

I mean, I think that's part of why it looks cool, is that it has that depth. Of course, at the time it was like, "No, this is not what we're doing. We talked about... It's going to balloon out of control."


Larry Kilgore III:

Was there ever a push to try and get completely 3D? Because it sounds like you certainly didn't want to take it to full 3D because of the amount of work that would be around. Julien, were you ever trying to push to "Let's just make it all 3D"?


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I tried, but I saw that I was pushing too far for Gabe and I had to walk that back a little bit. No, but I think we were actually pretty smart with how we did those 3D assets. We were able to get a lot of them very quickly because we tried to stick with the pixel look, and so all the textures are very simple.


Julien Ribassin:

We didn't go with PBR. We didn't go with very complicated materials. Stuff is either regular or shiny, and that allowed us to not get too crazy.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, there was a push and a pull. I remember one time there were these staircases. I had made them all 2D before and then he was really pushing to make them 3D. And I was like... because at the time, we were still... We're not getting paid, and so it's not like a... I have a day job and Julien's being a dad. It's really draining to be like, "Oh, we got to do more. We got to do more."


Gabriel Miller:

On the video, it didn't come across. But once I played a build with the 3D staircases, in this case, and some of them are broken and at different angles and things, once I was playing it in full resolution on my computer, I was like, "Oh yeah, it looks way better, doesn't it?" Because the way I work as an artist, I make things and I send them off to him, and so I don't see stuff sometimes in the game until sometimes a month after it's been made.


Larry Kilgore III:

Gabe, you mentioned something there about being paid, and definitely want to get more into the business aspect of design and things like that. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back in a moment with Julien and Gabe, the creators of Firegirl, when we return here on PixelSmiths.


Larry Kilgore III:

This is PixelSmiths, the podcast that gives a voice to today's indie game developers. I'm Larry Kilgore III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton Paperthin Bader. We're here with Julien and Gabe, the creators of Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue.


Clinton Bader:

And guys, I want to pivot the conversation a little bit more towards the roguelike or roguelight aspect of the game. I know Julien, you've already said that you really like those types of games, and I do, too. I just absolutely love roguelike games. So I want to know what kind of aspects of roguelikes are we going to be seeing in Firegirl. Is there anything interesting or really that you wanted to bring out in this game?


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, so I've been working on roguelike forever, basically. I've only made roguelikes. I'm a huge fans of extremely old ones like NetHack, for example, like ASCII roguelikes. But I also really like modern ones and I have to say, a game like Rogue Legacy was a huge influence for the game [inaudible 00:24:20], but we do things a little differently from most other games.


Julien Ribassin:

Without getting to technical, the map in a roguelike is randomly generated, but it's generated then the player is spawned in on that level and he plays the level. In my games, I'm doing things very differently because the levels are generated in real time. That means that the level keeps getting generated as you are playing through the level, which means that me as the game designer, I can look at what you are doing and decide to change the shape of the level or the encounters that will come up depending on what you are doing are or depending on what your health is or what your stats are. So I'm doing a much more dynamic version of procedural generation.


Julien Ribassin:

And in terms of whether the games are roguelike or roguelight, it's more of a roguelight. We have a progression in between missions. We even have a story with characters and cutscenes, so it's a bit modern in that sense. It's not like Hades' levels of complexity, but we still have, I think, a pretty compelling story with cool characters in it.


Julien Ribassin:

What we're really trying to emphasize, and what's really important to me in roguelikes in general, is that failure doesn't matter. I don't like it when people say those games are difficult because to me, those games that are about failing but keeping on.


Larry Kilgore III:

Failing is certainly part of the process.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, but that's a life lesson. You always fail. You'll always fail at a lot of things. What's important is going on and keeping on and not saying, "Ah, whatever." That's what I really like about those games, and that's what I'm trying to convey a little bit in those games.

Julien Ribassin:

So in Firegirl, when you fail, you still have a fire brigade to run. Okay, you failed to rescue those people from the flames, but there are other people that will need your help and you cannot stop there. You have to go on. Learning to live with failure and move on is what I really like about roguelikes.


Clinton Bader:

Yeah, I played a lot of Dwarf Fortress, so I always like the fact that there was no winning in that game. You were just in a perpetual state of losing, but that was what they called fun, was actually the losing, right? That was the fun aspect of the game, so I like the way you're talking about this.


Larry Kilgore III:

I have a question, too. So you were saying that the games that you do, rather than it being procedurally generated at the beginning of the level and created that way, that it continues to generate as you're playing the game. Does that take a different mindset to think about it that way? Is it more work? Is that more processing power? What is, I guess, the different way you have to look at it to make it procedurally as a level goes, as opposed to what a lot of people do where the math and things are done beforehand and then the level's there for you to play?


Julien Ribassin:

From a programming point of view, it's very different. It's a very different approach. It's putting a lot of constraints on the level design, but it's also allowing to do those kind of things.


Julien Ribassin:

For example, we have a shopkeeper in the game and he appears sometimes. [inaudible 00:27:47] an... who's using those fires to make a quick buck selling water bottles in the middle of a fire. And so we're able to see like, "Okay, the player now is out of health, is down to only one heart. Now is the time to spawn the shopkeeper and sell a med kit for a crazy price." You wouldn't be able to do that with a preset, pre-generated level, but we are able to adapt on the fly and react. That way, we can create a really interesting situation where like, "Oh God, do I really want to pay 5,000 bucks for that med kit?" And at the same time, the clock is still ticking and you still have one person to rescue. Those are the moments that we're able to create because we have that real-time generation.


Clinton Bader:

That's super interesting. Honestly, that's really, really fascinating.


Gabriel Miller:

I was just going to say there's an evolution. We wanted to make just a... This is going to be our Metroidvania. We had a very different version of it initially before Julien's curse affected us all. And now, we are all brought into his madness.


Gabriel Miller:

But no, initially it was a little bit more like the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There's a turtle van and you go to the different building and then there's a level, and then [crosstalk 00:29:09].


Clinton Bader:

Like the very original one for Nintendo?


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah.


Clinton Bader:

Okay.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

That one, which we both agree, I think we agree, that it's a little underrated.


Clinton Bader:

Ridiculously hard and-


Gabriel Miller:

It is.


Clinton Bader:

... yeah, pretty amazing. It's weird because you got to save Donatello for some things, man.


Gabriel Miller:

There was a lot of the stuff back then that was not standard or something. I think the game does get a little bit of a bad rap, but our game was like that. You had the fire truck and you go to these different fires. There was a overworld that way with some progression.


Gabriel Miller:

And it was cool. Driving the little firetruck around was cool, but a lot of this was coming down to we have to design a game that we can really work on. This wasn't a full-time thing and we didn't want to get sucked into the curse of indie game projects where they take like a decade, which is not a joke. You can get sucked into one of these and it's like a decade, and it's going on and it's going on.


Gabriel Miller:

We were like, "Well, we really don't want to get sucked into that." So designing something that's like, "Okay, what's something we really could do that's not too ambitious and we can make it fun and focus on making it fun?" Because when you start doing that, you end up in a situation where you're not having fun anymore. You're just on a death march and you're just like, "Oh, I got to do content today. After work. And now, I have a kid." In addition to all of that, you're like, "Oh, okay. Now, I got to go do some content, too. Okay, just what's on the list?" You're just going on. You're not really engaged with making it. So you have to work on something that you can realistically do in a realistic amount of time, and it's going to be fun when you're done with it. That's where Julien's roguelike curse. He was like, "Do we make this a roguelike?"


Clinton Bader:

Yes.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

The answer was yes pretty quickly.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, because that version Gabe was talking about was a series of mini Metroidvanias, basically, mini Metroidvania maps. We quickly realized that we were stretching our assets very thin very quickly, that it always felt like the same level over and over again. Using procedural generation wouldn't feel that much more redundant, in a way, and would make our lives easier. But what happened after that is that we got funding, and so that changed everything.


Larry Kilgore III:

That actually goes right to the next point I wanted to make. I mean, you guys call it a curse, but clearly there's something about the way that you make roguelikes that seems to work because, I mean, Firegirl in particular, you guys won the IGN Japan award at BitSummit in 2019. You guys got the Epic MegaGrants program. You were a recipient of that in the fall of 2020. And then just back in October, you guys were on a Steam Next, talking about Firegirl and the upcoming and release as well. So clearly, there are some things going right. What did those awards and that kind of exposure really mean to the development of the game and being able to get more eyes on it and have more people see the project you guys were working on?


Julien Ribassin:

I think the BitSummit award was super important for both Gabe and I because we've been showing game at game shows for a few years and we had never won anything. Getting an award from your peers or from IGN Japan, big media, it's silly but it's very important.


Julien Ribassin:

People look at you differently. Suddenly, that platform holder is actually answering your calls. Suddenly, that publisher is very interested in your game, even though he didn't care about it two weeks ago. That award really changed a lot of things.


Clinton Bader:

Do you guys get a sash when you go to the event? It's BitSummit.


Gabriel Miller:

We got a little medal.


Clinton Bader:

You got a medal? You should wear it.


Julien Ribassin:

We have a medal.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, it's an acrylic medal. It's pretty cool.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah.


Gabriel Miller:

I almost didn't go to BitSummit that year because, Clinton knows about this, English teaching, I was English teaching and you don't really get time off.


Clinton Bader:

No.


Gabriel Miller:

So to make it, I had to run. I had to leave work. My coworker, God bless her, she's like, "I'll cover for you. Just go to the airport. This is important." I was like, "Okay, okay." I had to run literally to the train because the airport train only comes every hour or something. Then I had to run to the plane. And then once I was in Kyoto, I had to run to the last bus. I almost didn't even go.


Gabriel Miller:

And then I almost left before the award ceremony. I was like, "Ah, you know. Okay, I did it. I'm going." It was really awesome after all of that, and it's like we actually got an award. It was crazy. It just seemed like everything just lined up. Plus, we got really trashed, which was also [inaudible 00:33:30].


Julien Ribassin:

Yes.


Larry Kilgore III:

It really does sound like I'm missing a lot at BitSummit. I need to get my boss to send me.


Gabriel Miller:

Oh, you got to go to BitSummit.


Julien Ribassin:

We hadn't met in person-


Dusty (Producer):

I will send you to BitSummit when the podcast gets to 50,000 listens.


Gabriel Miller:

Oh it's in writing now.


Clinton Bader:

I'm going no matter what now.


Gabriel Miller:

Julien was going to say we hadn't seen each other, I think, in two years at that point?


Julien Ribassin:

Two years in person.


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah.


Julien Ribassin:

So it was a little crazy. It's like, "Oh, you're actually a person in 3D. You're not just a flat person on the screen. That's crazy."


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, that's right.


Larry Kilgore III:

That's how a lot of people feel nowadays with everything.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, but that was before all that nonsense.


Gabriel Miller:

I'm always shocked at how tall people are when I meet them in real life. I'm like, "Oh yeah, you're really tall." But it happens every time because I'm just a short guy. It's like, "Oh, you're tall, aren't you?" It's everybody.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, Julien, I did want to ask. We talked about the awards with Firegirl. I know illumine was actually pretty well received and you got a nomination at BitSummit in 2016 as well. Knowing that the first two games that you've released under the Dejima banner have been well received, do you feel good knowing that your work is being recognized and you're putting some good work out there?


Julien Ribassin:

It's really hard to say because my first game was... That's what people usually call a hidden gem, the good game that nobody talks about, basically. It sold more than I expected, but it didn't sell that much. It seems that everyone that played it really loved it, but does it really matter if not that many people played it? It's always the question, right?


Julien Ribassin:

We'll see what the reception for Firegirl is. Is it only hardcore roguelike fans that are going to like it, or are the guys who just love retro platformers, are they also going to enjoy it? Or can everyone actually enjoy that game and can we reach a wide audience? Those are the questions that we always had when working on that game. Can we reach more people with that project? Because the concept can talk to everyone.


Julien Ribassin:

That's why we didn't want to make it a very hardcore roguelike experience. I really wanted to try and make someone's first roguelike, the one that if you've never played a roguelike or if you don't like roguelikes, especially if you don't like them, maybe you should try this one. Maybe with this one, you'll understand why people like them. That was what we were trying to do with that game.


Gabriel Miller:

I remember when we started pivoting towards making it a roguelike. Another thing about the project that is a reason it worked and didn't become... It didn't either just fall apart or become just a death march that lasts a decade, one of the reasons is every single time we entered a new phase, we were like, "Well, we're giving ourselves a month to make a demo. We're giving ourselves three months. Okay, okay. We got an award. It's like okay, we should pursue this more." And it's going to the publishers and getting feedback and being like, "Okay, okay, okay. What's the real opportunity here?" and not just being like, "Well, I'm making something," and then turning off your brain, but actually staying alert and looking at what it is you have and what the opportunities are and giving yourself a limit on like, "Well, we need to do this next part in the next three or four months. We can't just do it forever."


Clinton Bader:

Do you guys think with the success of a game like Hades, we talked about that a little bit earlier, do you think that helps push the Firegirl narrative or the idea that you're going for here, Julien, of being the introduction to roguelikes? Because Hades is obviously huge. It's very well received. Do you think that's a good thing? Is it going to be able to roll that boulder up the hill a little bit further, that Sisyphean feat of trying to get your game going?


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, for sure. But I don't think Hades was really the first one. I think Rogue Legacy a few years ago was very popular and get a lot of people interested into those games.


Julien Ribassin:

To be honest, I'm a little bit worried that nowadays everything becomes a roguelike, and that I'm a little worried that roguelike fatigue might happen. It doesn't seem to be the case yet, but every time I see a 2D indie game come up, it's either a Metroidvania or a roguelike these days. That gets me a little bit worried about how... Everyone making the same thing is never a good thing.


Julien Ribassin:

But I think roguelike is such a wide genre now because yeah, you're talking about Hades, but Spelunky also a roguelike and it has nothing to do with Hades. It's completely different.


Clinton Bader:

Yeah, it's so different.


Julien Ribassin:

The type of player that will enjoy those games are completely different, in my opinion. But yeah, Hades is very approachable, I think, and for good reasons. I think it's a very good game, and so it probably helps people think that "Oh, yeah. It's a roguelike. Maybe it's good. Maybe it's not just a hard game."


Gabriel Miller:

It made people familiar with the idea that you're going to die. Don't panic. It doesn't mean you suck. Just means you got to try again. That's it. If there's an audience that's used to that sort of thing, it's got to be good, right?


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I'll say, too, one of the things that I've always shied away from that I've gotten a little bit closer to are the Soulsborne games, too, where they're designed to be challenging. Death is a part of the process, but it doesn't mean they can't be enjoyable games. You have to approach it differently. And yeah, death is a part of the game mechanics and it shouldn't be a deterrent.


Clinton Bader:

So we touched on this a little bit earlier, the funding and how that's impacted you guys, but we talked more about the awards that you guys got and how that shaped things. But now, you guys have also got a publisher. You're being published by the Thunderful Group. What has that changed about what you're doing? How does all these things tie in together, the funding, the publishing? Personally, I'm actually super curious about how this all meshes together.


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah. It was also very new for us. That was the first time I worked directly with a publisher. We spent quite some time looking for one, looking for the right partner.


Julien Ribassin:

Our relationship with Thunderful was really interesting from the start because we had several pitch meetings with them. During, I think, the second one, at the end of the pitch meeting, each guy from Thunderful was asking questions. One of their scouts asked us, "Okay, I see your budget, that you have finished a game within a year for that amount of money. What if we gave you enough money to add six more month and to ramp up the visuals of the game? What would you do?" And that's the moment I knew that yeah, we're good. We want to work with those guys because that's exactly what you want to hear. That's the moment where we were, "Okay, they really believe in the project. Now, we can hire one or two more artists on the game to help Gabe to produce those assets that we're talking about earlier," because we have simple assets, but we still need a lot of them to make the game feel alive.


Julien Ribassin:

Because that was also very important for us, that we're making a procedural game, but we don't want it to look procedural. We want it to look organic, alive and on fire, like a building crumbling or forest on fire. That really helped.


Julien Ribassin:

The budget we're asking for, our publisher said, "Let's give you even more so that you can focus on bringing the visuals from nine to a 11 out of 10." I remember we spent three months. We didn't add anything new to the game. We just crank everything up in terms of arts, in terms of rendering. That was such a great moment because we were always doing this at night or after our day work or daily job and now, we had funding and also we had the time to just give it our best shot in terms of visuals and really like, "Okay, let's see what we're capable of really doing if we put 100% of our time and what we know how to do into it." That was awesome.


Gabriel Miller:

It was no longer just like, "Ah, this could be something really cool, but it's impossible. We got to cut that." We're like, "Oh yeah, let's bring back that idea. Let's put that thing in there again."


Gabriel Miller:

And then actually, you guys interviewed Aubrey about his game Trackless. We actually got him involved and my wife, Aram, both involved in making art assets and concept art, which was great for me because I'm a generalist, but I don't... It's things I don't do as well because I do a little of everything, so getting specialists for making props and concept art was really, really, really helpful. And again, it's because of the publisher, because we were able to get with a publisher and we're able to... I'm not just asking a favor from someone. I'm like, "We can hire you. Could you come in and work on this?" It's a real game-changer.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, and I'll say it, too, Gabe. You just brought this up and we talked a little bit about it during the break, but there is a bit of a personal connection that you have with your work in gaming. I believe isn't that how you met your wife?


Gabriel Miller:

Yeah, I met her at Seoul Indies. Shout out Seoul Indies. I was actually about to leave Korea. I was like, "Ah, yeah. I've been here a couple years. I'll leave now." But I met her there and that... Me and her worked together on a project called RemiLore, which is another cool indie roguelike that came out a few years ago. It's a game where you just hack and slash. I worked on that briefly while I was working with Julien on our previous efforts. There was a three or four month break where I didn't work with Julien on some stuff because I had this job making weapons for the game RemiLore. But yeah, she ended up working with us on Firegirl doing a lot of the props. She's a very good prop artist.


Clinton Bader:

Just real quick. What kind of things are prop artists... What kind of things are they going to be making, just in case people aren't sure what kind of...


Gabriel Miller:

Oh, prop artist is making things like the things that are in the background, beds and chairs and tables. Because that was another thing, is that some of our levels were a little bit empty, and making things 3D, as I said before, it can make it take a little bit longer. And so once we were able to be like, "Well we have a budget. We can actually hire people to make the props," I could focus on making the background shapes of the walls and things and then having Aubrey and Aram hop in and here comes the art dump truck every day. Here's a bunch of new beds. Here's a bunch of new tables. And then when Julien was making the levels, he takes the background geometry that I've made and textures and then he combines it with props, and then he adds enemies and things like that.


Larry Kilgore III:

Last question for you guys. Firegirl's about to be released. I believe it should be released by the time that this podcast has come out. It's available on Steam. What do you guys have in the works next, if you can talk about it? Is there a project you guys are working on together, or are we going to see more from the Firegirl team?


Gabriel Miller:

I think we're going to see more. You've actually caught us in the... We're in the middle of the final deadline crunch, so we're talking all the time about our next project and brainstorming things. I don't know if Julien wants to chime in on that at all. I don't think we know yet. We're kind of arriving at the neighborhood of ideas, but I know Julien's swamped with finishing things that have to be done on the game.


Larry Kilgore III:

You guys are certainly talking about doing another project together?


Julien Ribassin:

Yeah, totally. We have tons of ideas. There are a lot of different directions we could go and the big questions are, I think, do we want to grow as a company? Do we want to get bigger and hire more people, or do we think we should stay the same size and focus on what we know how to do and really polish and hone our skills? Those are the big questions right now because if Firegirl is successful, I think we might have more opportunities, and big decisions are going to have to be made.


Julien Ribassin:

But yeah, we have tons of ideas. We even have a half-done done project that I can't wait to get back on. But yeah, we cannot announce anything yet, of course. But yeah, we'll make more games. Of course.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well guys, this has been a great and fun conversation. I am looking forward to playing Firegirl, getting my hands on that and seeing what else you guys might come out with in the future. So Julien, Gabe, it has been a pleasure talking to you guys. Thank you so much for joining us on PixelSmiths.


Gabriel Miller:

Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.


Clinton Bader:

Thanks, guys.


Julien Ribassin:

Thanks a lot.


Larry Kilgore III:

The songs used in this episode are from the Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue original soundtrack and were composed and performed by [Philippe Wart 00:46:24]. Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue is available now on Steam and will be available on consoles in 2022. Find out more about Gabe and Julien at the Dejima Game's website, D-E-J-I-M-A.games. That's dejima.games. Also, follow Julien on Twitter at @DejimaGames.


Larry Kilgore III:

PixelSmiths is brought to you by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Podcampmedia.com. Executive producer is Dusty Weis. Associate producer is Gabriel Miller, and I oversee editing and production.

Clinton Bader:


You can follow me, Clinton Bader, on Twitter at @paperthinhere and on Twitch at twitch.tv/paperthinhere.


Larry Kilgore III:

Thanks for tuning in to PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton Paperthin Bader.



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