• Larry Kilgore III

PixelSmiths Ep. 5: Lacuna w/ Julian Colbus & Jasmin Pfeiffer of DigiTales



A creative German couple launches their noir detective story to a string of accolades and awards


On this episode, Larry & Clinton talk with Julian Colbus & Jasmin Pfeiffer, partners for 12 years and co-founders of DigiTales Interactive. Their first game, Lacuna, is a 2D sci-fi noir adventure where your choices matter, and is greatly inspired by The Expanse.

In this conversation, the couple talk about working together creatively before the launch of DigiTales, Julian's experience as a composer in the gaming industry, the importance of listening to feedback during development, and the incredible enthusiasm and excitement they saw from concept to release of Lacuna. They also talk about the political turmoil of Russia/Ukraine and other conflicts, and how that helped inform the political aspects of their narrative.

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Find Lacuna on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1364100/Lacuna__A_SciFi_Noir_Adventure/

Visit the DigiTales Interactive website: https://digitales.games/

Follow DigiTales Interactive on Twitter: https://twitter.com/digitales_games


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 away for creators to tell their 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 and 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'll speak with the couple from Germany who are behind DigiTales Interactive and their new sci-fi noir detective game, Lacuna. 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, an eSports broadcaster and commentator. We're here to give indie game developers a spot to really highlight their talent and hard work.


Larry Kilgore III:

Today, we are talking to Julian Colbus and Jasmin Pfeiffer, co-founders of DigiTales Interactive.


Larry Kilgore III:

Julian and Jasmin, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. So you two have a very interesting story. You just celebrated your 12th anniversary as a couple. So, congrats on that. You've been creating artistic projects together for a long time. Since well before founding DigiTales. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?


Julian Colbus:

Yeah. We got together in 2009, actually, and we both study literature at university. Well, she did, and I did later. So usually that's not your background as a game developer, but at the time we went into theater. Actually, we staged our own play and we staged a play at university together. That's sort of how we started out being creative together too. That was in 2011 or 12, maybe. Then we had a bunch of failed projects that we never finished. We tried doing a novel, we tried doing all kinds of different media, and then we settled on video games. Apart from that, I'm also a composer. So that's what I did in video games for five-ish years before we founded DigiTales together.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

I did a PhD in literature, and I'm also still working at university giving courses in literature for students.


Clinton Bader:

So, Julian, you said that you were already somewhat involved in video games. Is that what kind of led to you guys really focusing in on that?


Julian Colbus:

Yeah, I realized many years ago that I wanted to work in game development, but I didn't have any skills. So, one thing I could do was make music and I tried doing that and that worked out okay. I freelanced for a bunch of studios and was able to build some expertise and learn what not to do when I worked with projects that didn't do too hot or sometimes had some insights into how they were made. I wanted to do more and I did that on the side as a hobby for many years. I don't know why it took us that long, honestly, to settle on video games, because it made a lot of sense. It's like my favorite medium and video games really combine all the different ways in which it can be creative. We can write creatively, we can make music, we can do direction, our direction. It's ultimate medium to be creative I think.


Larry Kilgore III:

So the ball really started to roll for you guys at the end of 2018. You won Best Startup at Game Award Saar 2018, then launched DigiTales Interactive in March of 2019. What motivated you guys to shift from working on Lacuna part-time to launching your own company and making it a full-time job?


Julian Colbus:

Well, we're really lucky to get the award. This is a local award that comes with 10,000 euros, which was sort of the money we needed to flesh out the prototype. Then we went to pitch it. We didn't expect that much, but we did land a publishing deal in the end. The difference between doing it as a hobby and doing it professionally later on, was just that we were able to fund ourselves and pay some employees. It was really not that well laid out. Just sort of went well and we landed a publishing gig with Assemble Entertainment. I've been wanting to do something like that for a long time but the thing is I was working at a different development studio. I didn't expect to quit, but then we had unexpected success and we did it. We launched our own.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

We went to German Game Developer Conference in 2019 and showed our prototype to lots of other game developers. They really liked the game and they really said, "Yeah, it's cool". There were lots of people who were involved in the story and I think that also was some sort of turning point. Because we started to think that we could actually make it and that the game could become a success. Yeah.


Julian Colbus:

We had no idea if it was any good.


Clinton Bader:

I think it turned out well. Focusing a little bit on Lacuna itself, it's a sci-fi story. I think Larry and I are very interested in sci-fi and these kind of things and noir as well as a genre. I've always kind of had like a soft spot for. What were some of the inspirations for the game? Where did it come from?


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Well, one important inspiration was The Expanse novels and the TV show as well. We really loved that. Especially the first book with Miller as the protagonist. Who's also some sort of hard-boiled detective. I think he was an important inspiration for Neil, our protagonist in Lacuna. So yeah, we have lots of books and TV shows that we really like and that we draw inspiration from, for Lacuna.


Julian Colbus:

There's actually a moon called Milon that's is named after Miller from The Expanse. I think I've never said that before.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

We have lots of small Easter eggs I think.


Julian Colbus:

There's a Ghost in the Shell reference in there too. It's actually pretty out in the open. I don't think nobody's ever spotted it yet.


Clinton Bader:

I just finished season six of The Expanse. I've loved the show to death. Absolutely one of my all-time favorite TV shows. So. I'm really happy you guys liked it as well. I think that kind of stuff really makes me excited.


Julian Colbus:

Yeah we're big time fans. I have this Roci model that Jasmin gave to me for Christmas on my desk. We read all the books. I'm actually still on the last book right now and we watched the season finale the other day too.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, in the game too, you guys kind of use the cell phone as the way to like organize information, clues, and things like that. How did that idea come about? Was that just something that happened naturally? Was there anything in particular that kind of motivated you and inspired you to use the cell phone as a file book? I think it's very interesting that you use a cell phone that is set in the future, but even nowadays it's something that everyone has and uses to organize their stuff.


Julian Colbus:

I think the entire investigation game play was a very long process the way it turned out. It actually changed pretty late in development and the cell phone was one of the things that we realized the player needs, especially across play sessions. If you take a break of a couple of days and you're supposed to remember what somebody told you, that's impossible. So, we needed a way for the player to organize all their information, and we had a bunch of features and realized we could put it all in there. We could have the cases be in there, the logs of the conversations, the messages you need to get, sometimes the calls you need get.


Julian Colbus:

It was more like the game design and the story always informed one another. When we realized, okay, the player needs to get a call or needs to get some information at that point, how are we going to get it to them? They probably need to get a call. Oh, okay. We can put that in there too. So I think the cell was sort of an organic thing that developed over time and that we poured a bunch of features into that the game necessitates.


Clinton Bader:

One of the things that I'm kind of interested with the game is the political aspect. What were some of your thoughts and ideas coming into how to attack that in the game. Were there any specific things you were thinking about as like a reference point?


Julian Colbus:

There's loads of different real life inspirations in there that are so mixed up that I don't think any of them are recognizable anymore. One of the oldest inspirations was like the Russia/Ukraine thing that was actually really sparked when I first said the idea in like think 2014 or something. Then we had like the Hong Kong protests and all that kind of stuff. It was all any like big developments over the past couple of years between super powers sort of informed our story in one way or another.


Julian Colbus:

We also wanted to have it be a complicated political backdrop. So people can have like little bits and pieces of a more complex world. I think we wrote out different political parties on planets that get like mentioned once and we did that so we'd always be coherent. Whenever you get a puzzle piece, it would fit with a piece somewhere completely different because it's all actually a complete picture in the background. That way we would ensure that the world would come across in a coherent way and 80% of our Wiki and the world building I think is never made explicit in the story.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

There's one thing I really like about The Expanse that is that the antagonists always have a point and they still are likable. You understand the motivation. I really like that. We try to do that in Lacuna as well. So we tried to create antagonists that have a point. You can understand what they're doing. That was very important. We didn't want to have a black and white dystopian sci-fi setting. We wanted it to be more complex than that.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I feel too that having a protagonist and an antagonist that are both very relatable, it makes the story more interesting and it's more realistic. You want to enjoy a story where you can relate to and understand both sides of the story. So I think that's a very good point. The last question I had about design and whatnot of the look, I'd say in noir in general the idea of the smoking detective that stands around in monologues while smoking either in his office or out a window is something that's not really seen a lot in more modern stuff today. Popular media in general, kind of tries to get away from the smoking protagonist. I love the fact that you guys did it. I feel like it's very much a staple of the noir genre. It's a way for you to kind of show off some of the visual designs that you have in it. Where did that idea come from to include that in the game?


Julian Colbus:

We're really trying to get a sponsorship by Philip Morris you know.


Julian Colbus:

Well, it fits the vibe for once. I think noir and smoking are connected with one another on a pretty visual level because of the smoke screen that you have the smoke and deception. I think they're sort of linked visually and thematically in a way.


Julian Colbus:

I think that's part of where it comes from but with Neil, we wanted to have a choice. Lacuna is all about choices and you can smoke a lot or you can quit smoking or you can do something in between in that instance. We wanted to make it a choice for the player. We had some players write us and be like, "Hey, I want to have like the views of the city, but I don't want Neil to smoke". We're like, "Yeah, that's the point you need give something up. You need to sort of feel what Neil feels. If you're going to quit smoking, you have to pay the price, so to speak. That was one of the choice mechanics in it. We wanted to have a positive message about quitting and how it's hard and not just have the guy smoke all the time and promote smoking or whatever.


Larry Kilgore III:

You talked about choice there too, which kind of brings me to my next question. This is a game where your choices matter and there's multiple endings depending on the choices you make. As a gamer myself, I know I've done it and a lot of gamers will have different save states so they can play out how the different choices play out. You guys seem to have made a very intentional choice to not allow that right at the beginning of the game, you make it very clear that you're not allowing manual saves, you can't load previous saves, it saves at certain points and you just work through to the end. Was that intentional? Was that something that you knew from the very beginning that you wanted to limit that choice and make those choices that much more impactful?


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yeah, we definitely wanted to make your choices final in the game. That's really an important part of our core design. It's already now our first game design document. Yeah. We really want the players to feel the weight of their decisions and not allow them to go back and change what they said or what they did. So, that was very important to us. We do understand that it's kind of annoying if you just want to stop playing and you can't because the last save point is like 10 minutes ago. That can happen sometimes in the game and we take that feedback seriously. We can't promise if you can change that for Lacuna, but maybe in future projects. Yeah, we still want to keep it that way that you can't change your decisions. We want more save points, but what you did is what you did and yeah. You have to live with that.


Clinton Bader:

I like that a lot. I think like carrying that weight is kind of an important decision and it kind of fits to me with like the noir style. Right. I don't want to say nihilistic, noir's kind of very self introspective, but kind of also like fatalistic. Sometimes you're not concerned with what's going to happen to you in the future, but those decisions are impactful. That's part of noir, right? You have to do with your past and your future. So.

Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yeah, exactly.


Julian Colbus:

Yeah, absolutely. That's a big theme in noir I think. That the postman always rings twice, right? That you have to account for the consequences.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, we've had a lot of fun picking your guys' brain so far about Lacuna and your company. We'd like to get more into the game and the success of the company. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be back with more from Julian and Jasmin.


Larry Kilgore III:

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


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton 'Paperthin' Bader. We're talking to Julian Colbus and Jasmin Pfeiffer. Creators of the game Lacuna and in the first part of the interview, guys, we really focused about the game itself and the inspirations and those kind of things. Let's change gears a little bit over to like the success of the business and the growth of your company. So, you guys spent a lot of time in 2019, showing off your prototype, you won more awards at the Game Awards, SAAR 2019. You guys talked about there was financial prizes, 2020 seemed to be a good year of growth as well. Can you guys guide us through a little bit of what that year looked like for you?


Julian Colbus:

Yeah. We finally got everything up and running after a very stressful period of trying to secure funding. In early 2020, we had our office rented, we had our people there. Then the pandemic came and we all had to go back home again for months and months. So, it was very different from what we expected, but we got lucky actually because all the pitching was already behind us. I don't envy any developers that are trying to pitch their projects right now to publishers across the globe with no events going on and no in-person meetings. So, in that regard, it wasn't too bad for us. Yeah, in 2020, we just put the pedal to the metal and had to sort of knock this out because we had been working on it in our free time for like five years and now we had a year and a half.


Julian Colbus:

The release date, May 20th, was much less than a year and a half actually. The release date of May 2021 was already set in stone like a year and a half before. So we're pretty proud that we managed to hit it despite everything. Yeah, it was just a lot of hard work during that period and now we're going to launch into a new project, hire some more people. So it's been going well but even with a moderately successful game, like Lacuna, you're always almost broke as an indie developer.


Larry Kilgore III:

I wanted to ask a question. So, we had a guest on earlier that was from Norway and I know he got some funding from the Norwegian government. You guys as well won a grant from the German government. As an American, as far as I know, that's not something that we offer here. I'm interested. What's it like being able to get that kind of support from the government? Was that really something that made a difference as far as the funding and being able to move forward with the project?


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yeah, definitely. I don't think that we could have made a publisher deal if we hadn't had the funding. Especially if you are working on your first game and you don't have any credibility in the industry. It's very hard to find a publisher who's financing your project and with the financial support from the government, they just had to pay half of the production costs. So, that's really a big deal for them and really made a big difference for us having the possibility to get that money.


Julian Colbus:

It was a new program that launched in 2019-ish, 2018 maybe, that gives a 50 million euros a year to German game projects. We got a fraction of that for Lacuna. I think 86,000. You don't have to pay it back. It's just essentially a stimulus for the games industry.

Clinton Bader:

That's incredible. Wow. I'm kind of curious about the process of applying for this grant or this stimulus, whatever you want to call it. How competitive is it to get it?


Julian Colbus:

Well, the application at first was very complicated and difficult because it was just launched and they had no idea how the games industry worked and the games industry had no idea how the bureaucracy works. So, we had to send in like half a rainforest worth in paper to get this off the ground but in the end it was okay. Now they streamlined a lot. It's a lot better. We're a couple years in now. We were among the first to try to get it. The project launch was delayed by I think, five months from the initial plan. So, we were actually on the brink of just going broke, waiting for funding. We had promised our new guys to bring them on and pay their salaries, starting January and the funding didn't come through until April.


Julian Colbus:

So, it was difficult process in the beginning, but we're super glad we got it. Now it's a lot better and we know because we got it for the prototype of our new project as well. It went a lot more smoothly this time around but other than that, it's a great initiative now that the growing pains are gone.


Clinton Bader:

Is there a specific name for the initiative?


Julian Colbus:

It's computer games funding of the state. It's pretty much a direct translation. We're not very creative over here. I can tell you in German, it's computer [foreign language 00:18:07]


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

But it's actually not very competitive. So if you fulfill the form of criteria, you usually do get the funding. So that's really cool.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, I should move to Germany if I want to start my game.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yeah.


Julian Colbus:

Yeah. I thought you guys had socialism for businesses.


Clinton Bader:

Not for startups.


Julian Colbus:

Not for small or just for the big ones.


Larry Kilgore III:

That's a shame.


Clinton Bader:

Just the big ones. Yeah. Yeah.


Julian Colbus:

Okay.


Clinton Bader:

I live in South Korea, so it's a little different here.


Julian Colbus:

Okay.


Larry Kilgore III:

So you guys released your demo in February of last year, which is now available as Lacuna prologue. Demos are obviously a good way to get feedback and to kind of find out the things that may or may not work with the game. Was there any feedback you guys got during that demo period that kind of made you rethink or make changes to the game at all?


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yes. Lots of feedback. We did a lot of playtests as well, and the players' feedback is very important for us and we had to make a lot of changes. I think that's normal and it's an important part of game development to playtest your game, talk to the players, see what works and what doesn't work, and then change the game. So we did that a lot. We also noticed some technical issues, some really weird technical issues when we started launching the demo when people with different computers played the game. So that was also very useful, but we also did some last-minute changes to the game itself. Actually, for example, the glossary, you have some sort of glossary in your cell phone where you can look up the names of the important factions of important people, important places. We added that, I don't know, two months before the game released, I think. Because we realized that it was difficult for people to remember the names, especially if they took a break and then restarted the game several days after that. So we put in that glossary to make it easier.


Julian Colbus:

Benches were added around the same time. That's like a very small feature that not many players may notice, but it was something that came out of late playtesting when we realized that some players would rush through and not take everything into account and not really sit down and think about it. So that was an offer, a nudge towards, 'Hey, maybe this is an area where you gain some information that you could maybe piece together afterwards'. So we added that super last minute. A couple of those design decisions were very late in development based on playtesting.


Clinton Bader:

I like that. That's something that always comes up one way or another is like the initial feedback and how the developers deal with that. So I like the thoughtful process you guys really put into that.


Julian Colbus:

Yeah. I think any developer whose worked this all does a lot of testing and as early as possible. Even when we didn't have anything in terms of code, we would do a pen and paper session and try to figure out if people like the story and what ideas they would have for solving the cases and where they wanted to go. We actually modeled some of what happens in Lacuna after this pen and paper prototype where we just ask, 'Hey, so what are your questions? What are your ideas?'. Then we're like, oh, so that's what a player would like to do and then we made it possible in the game later.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

I think it can be hard to deal with feedback, but you have to be honest with yourself. I think it's very important that you're not precious with your ideas. If people say, 'Well, I don't like it", then be honest and throw it out if it doesn't work. It's kind of a process, but it's very important I think.


Julian Colbus:

Cutting something hurts for like one second and then it's the best feeling ever. I love throwing stuff out that I worked on. It's so good.


Larry Kilgore III:

We did an interview with Tom-Ivar Arntzen who did Klang and he had the same idea. He works in a collective in Norway and he had similar feedback where sometimes people just get tunnel vision. And it's very important to get the feedback and to not take that personally, because you're not just making the game for yourself. You need to understand what the players and the people want. So I think it's really important that you guys understand that and you embrace that as well.

Jasmin Pfeiffer:


Yeah, absolutely.


Julian Colbus:

There's a developer in our neck of the woods. I'm not going to name any names, but they had an alpha out a couple years ago that went absolutely viral. Like millions of players. They still have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and like massive YouTubers wanted to play the full game when it came out. It took five years and from what we've seen, the development process took place completely behind closed doors. The game came out and I don't think it was bad personally, but I think what happened was they didn't really talk to any of their millions of players who played the alpha and what their expectations were. There were changes and players already always on the fence about changes even if they're good changes. I think some of the changes just weren't what the community wanted and it tanked so bad and it kept getting review bombed and everything. I think that's a cautionary tale.


Clinton Bader:

It's a double-edged sword with the player feedback, for sure. I've seen that time and time again in game development where sometimes you got to listen to them and they're absolutely right. Other times they don't actually know what they want. They don't realize it until you give it to them.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Yeah. That's really an important point. We really like watching players play our game because if they give you their feedback afterwards, maybe they tell you something that isn't true. If you're watching them play, you can really see what the issues are and where the problems are and that's much more useful I think.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, speaking of reviews, Lacuna's been out for a little while now. It was released last spring for PC and recently for consoles as well. Seems like reviews have been great. The reception's been really good. You guys even won Best Game of the Year at Game Award SAAR again. So how do you two feel about the game and the reception that it's had?


Julian Colbus:

We did not expect to have 94% positive on Steam and we would've been happy with like 70, but it's been really great. I think people are super generous, but yourself after like looking at a game for so many years, the illusion doesn't work. You see the flaws and you see what you wanted to do with this and that and it isn't. This is a very negative response. We're super happy about the reception, but we're just going to have to take people's words for it that it's any good is what I'm saying.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, it seems like people's word is that it's pretty good. So I hope you take some solace in that.


Julian Colbus:

That's awesome. Yeah.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

It's also awesome to see people playing the game and see that they have an emotional reaction to the game. So I think that was my favorite part of the release that people really cared about the protagonist and about the NPCs and all that. So that was really, really great to see.


Clinton Bader:

That's fantastic. I guess lastly here, as we go towards the end of the interview, what does the future look like for DigiTales Interactive? Are you planning on growing anything? Do you guys have any projects in the works maybe?


Julian Colbus:

Yeah, we actually got our prototype co-founded by the government again and also by our publisher from before. It's about to be wrapped up and if all goes well, we're going to flesh that out to another game. That's pretty much all I can say because it's already under NDA. I will say that it's not like a completely different thing. We're trying to improve and use the knowledge that we gained in our first project. It's still a long ways away. So it will be at least, I don't know, many months until we even announce it probably.


Larry Kilgore III:

It's still good to hear that you're on another project and you're moving forward again. Beause it's always good to hear when people have success like you've had, that they keep the ball rolling. I feel like sometimes one of the things that can hurt you when it comes to success is spending too long reveling in it. You guys have had a great release, but it's good to see that you've got another idea and you guys are moving forward with it again. If it's anything like Lacuna, I'm pretty sure it'll be a hit.


Julian Colbus:

Thanks. Yeah, I think we didn't dwell on for too long. We got busy with the console ports pretty much. We had like two weeks off after release and then got back into it. At the same time worked on the prototype for which we actually had the internal pitching sessions the summer before. So it's actually already been a year and a half since we developed the project to be sure. We are so to have some friends advising us, who've been in the business for longer, who are like, 'if you start thinking about the next project three months before launch of your current one, you're going to be out of money by the time you want to start the new prototype'.


Julian Colbus:

We planned ahead pretty far to be able to have no gap in funding in between projects. It would've forced us to close up shop for three months. The thing is that even like I said, with a game like the Lacuna, that's moderately successful, it's near impossible to fund your next project. Even if your next project is just a prototype that takes like half a year or a year to make, it's really only possible for us, at least with the help of our publisher and the government grant at this moment.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, it seems like you guys are really on top of it. You've got a great game that came out and you've got a new one that you guys are working on. I'm sure if it's anything like Lacuna, it'll be a big hit. So Jasmin, Julian, thank you guys so much for joining us on this episode of PixelSmiths.


Jasmin Pfeiffer:

Thank you so much for having us. Was really great talking to you.

Julian Colbus:

Thank you very much.


Larry Kilgore III:

After we recorded this interview, we found out that Julian and Jasmin had more exciting news to share. DigiTales has a big announcement they're making today, March 21st, so make sure to visit their website, digitales.games. That's d-i-g-i-t-a-l-e-s dot games. Or follow them on Twitter, @digitales_games. Also, They've been nominated for Best Game at this year's biggest German game awards show, so congratulations to them on that. The awards show is on March 31st.


Larry Kilgore III:

The songs used in this episode are from Lacuna and were composed and performed by Julian Colbus. Lacuna is now available on Steam, Xbox and PlayStation platforms and Nintendo switch. PixelSmiths is brought to you by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses, podcampmedia.com.


Larry Kilgore III:

Executive producers, Dusty Weiss, and I oversee editing and production.


Clinton Bader:

You can follow me Clinton Bader on social media @paperthinhere as well as twitch.tv/paperthinhere.


Larry Kilgore III:

Thanks for tuning into PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton 'Paperthin' Bader.


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