• Larry Kilgore III

PixelSmiths Ep. 8: Chinatown Detective Agency w/ Mark, Ricardo, and Rik of General Interactive Co.



A globe-spanning development team makes a point-and-click detective game heavily influenced by the Carmen Sandiego games of the 1990's.


On this episode, Larry & Clinton talk with Mark, Ricardo, and Rik from General Interactive, creators of Chinatown Detective Agency. Chinatown Detective Agency is a cyber noir point-and-click adventure game that blends pixel art style with innovative mechanics. It is also a tribute to some of Mark's favorite games growing up; The Carmen Sandiego games made by Broderbund Software.


In this episode, the guys talk about the state of General Interactive from their early days to now, how the internet and social media allowed their team to grow and adapt around the globe, the importance of listening to both good and bad feedback about your game, and what's next for them.


Other game/media influences that are discussed include: the Age of Empire series, Blade Runner, Total Recall, The DaVinci Code, In the Name of the Rose, Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon, Deus Ex, Liam Wong, Raymond Chandler, James Elroy.

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Find Chinatown Detective Agency on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1172190/Chinatown_Detective_Agency/


Visit the General Interactive website: http://www.generalinteractive.co/

Follow General Interactive on Twitter: https://twitter.com/genintco

Follow Mark Fillon on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mrkfillon

Follow Ricardo Juchem on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RicardoJuchem

Follow Rik Godwin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Tafdolphin


Transcript:


Larry Kilgore III:

Video games are an art form. From the bits and bites 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'll speak with members of the globe-spanning development team behind Chinatown Detective Agency, a point and click detective adventure that came out recently and is available on multiple platforms. 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 a voice to today's indie game developers to really showcase the hard work and creative energy it takes to make games.


Larry Kilgore III:

Today, we are talking to three members of the dev team at General Interactive Company, creators of Chinatown Detective Agency. Founder, creative director and game designer, Mark Fillon. Art director, Ricardo Juchem. And lead narrative designer, Rik Godwin. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on the show today.


Rik Godwin:

Pleasure to be here.


Ricardo Juchem:

Thank you for taking us here.


Mark Fillon:

Very excited to be here. Thanks for having us.


Larry Kilgore III:

I'm excited to jump into the nitty gritty of Chinatown Detective Agency or CDA for short. But first, I'd like to talk a little bit about your individual backgrounds. Mark, we'll start with you. What were you doing before you started General Interactive and what made you want to start your own game company? What were those early days like for you and the company?


Mark Fillon:

Sure. Before I really started taking game dev seriously, I had a career in advertising. I was an admin for a while. And I still am. I'm actually juggling two things. I've got my day job, which is working in advertising. And then, I'm moonlighting, if you will, as a game dev. It's been going on since 2016. General Interactive has been around since 2016.


Mark Fillon:

Prior to that, my first real taste of game design, if you will, was as a kid, as a high school student. Just being really obsessed with Age of Empires and Age of Empires II. Creating my own content, modding my own content, like missions and new campaigns. And I really loved it. I felt like this could be something I see myself doing seriously.


Mark Fillon:

But then, life got real. I had to go to college. I had to earn my keep. And I sort of forgot about it. But I think what really triggered this decision to get serious about it and to start General Interactive was finding out that I was going to be a dad in 2016. When you're faced with something like that, when you're faced with this revelation that you're going to be a father, you think to yourself, "Would my daughter be proud of me for working in advertising?"


Mark Fillon:

To me, the answer was obviously, "No." She'd probably be proud of me if I did something more creative. It was a leap of faith and we released our first game in 2017, Terroir. Chinatown Detective Agency followed about five years later and here we are.


Clinton Bader:

Now, real quick, I've got to ask. What's your opinion on AoE IV? Are you a fan?


Mark Fillon:

I'm super embarrassed to admit this. I haven't played or touched Age of Empires IV just yet. I got as far as three. I thought three was horrible. I thought Age of Mythology was great though, but that was the last thing I played from that series.


Clinton Bader:

Can you tell us a little bit about Terroir? Tell us what kind of game that was that got you guys started.


Mark Fillon:

Sure. Terroir is a wine-making simulation game where you own and build your own wine estate. You grow grapes. You choose the varietals of grapes that you want to grow. You craft the wine. You have to get it reviewed by wine snobs, and then you have to sell it in the market and you have to expand your estate.


Mark Fillon:

We made that decision to make that game as our first project. For one thing ... And it's still true to this day. If you really want an audience on Steam, devs know how hard it is to build an audience on Steam. It's best to work in a genre that will always have high demand, will always have a ready audience. Things like management games, city-building games, tycoon games will always have a ready audience.


Mark Fillon:

It was a modest project. It was self-funded. We didn't have a publisher. We didn't have outside funding. It turned out to be pretty rewarding for the amount of resources and effort we put into it. That was the beginning of how we've built our following. Chinatown just exponentially enlarged that following, and we find ourselves here today.


Larry Kilgore III:

I love the fact that ... I believe it's the wine store in CDA is named after your original game Terroir. I noticed that right away.


Clinton Bader:

The tie-ins.


Mark Fillon:

Yes. That's Ricardo's idea, actually.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well then, let's turn to Ricardo. Ricardo, you're next up. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your background and what got you involved with General Interactive and Chinatown Detective Agency?


Ricardo Juchem:

I used to work as a web designer as well on advertising, but I was sick of lying to people. I quit my job and I gave me about one year to make it happen with art. I didn't know even if it was pixel art, but I wanted to try a career in games. This wasn't possible here in Brazil, because we don't have an industry. But now, with the internet, we are traveling with a global team.


Ricardo Juchem:

Mark's from Singapore, Rik is based in France. The internet made this possible. I gave myself one year of deadline to get a job making art for something game related. With six months, I got a job on Future Flashback. It's a Brazilian project yet to be released. It's an adventure game as well. Two months after, Mark saw my art on Twitter and invited me to make the art for Chinatown.


Ricardo Juchem:

But my education is far from pixels. I have a bachelor's degree in acting for theater. But at the same time, I didn't went to the theater career, because I don't have a good memory to memorize text. I love to act, to expose myself. Not nudes. But I try to use things from that time on my work today. From theater, I got the experience from lighting, from costume design, from scenography.


Ricardo Juchem:

From the advertising ... I use a lot from my web design career in the interface of the game, for example. I really believe that everything that we learn through life, we can use in another area. I am an example of this. I'm sorry about my stuttering English, because it's not my native tongue. But at least I can make some jokes with this.


Clinton Bader:

No. You're all good, man.


Larry Kilgore III:

Your point about using all of your skills and other careers resonates with us. I'm not sure if you've listened to some of the other podcasts, but Clint and I have both talked about ... Our careers started in something different. My first degree was in philosophy.


Clinton Bader:

I studied physics. I have a bachelor's degree in physics, actually.


Larry Kilgore III:

We're both doing things that are completely different.


Ricardo Juchem:

My father, he got a degree in economy. He used to work on environment issues. I think that it's a pretty nice way to live. This thing of your study. You made this for some part of your life, but life is so interesting that you need to try other things as well. I think that if you stay making one thing for your entire life, you are not getting your full potential. You are pretty good for a lot of things. Not just one. Try it.


Clinton Bader:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I just real quick wanted to compliment the art in the game. I live in an Asian mega city. I've never been to Singapore. I'd like to go someday, but it felt very accurate. Especially, the Singapore part. I really appreciated that. Thank you.


Ricardo Juchem:

It was the part of Mark, because he sent a lot of great reference. He is the best brief writer that I've found in my life. It's amazing. For me, it's awesome, because I need reference to make my art. I have a condition called aphantasia. I can't create visual imagery.


Ricardo Juchem:

If you close your eyes right now and imagine an apple, you are going to imagine just the shape or the color of the apple or a realistic apple. But for me, I just see black. I can't imagine this, but I think that I'm talking too much about this right now. I think it's Rik time.


Clinton Bader:

All right. We'll go to Rik then. We'll go to Rik. Rik, tell us about yourself. You've been working in writing and narration for a while, but tell us your history coming up to working with General Interactive. And then, what got you into General Interactive?


Rik Godwin:

I have an English language background. It's my degree. I suppose I'm the opposite from everyone else. I'm doing exactly what that degree was focused on. For the longest time, I was a teacher, actually. I taught English in Japan for a number of years. Actually, the first job I got in France was teaching. But I've always written for myself, because I was largely too nervous to share it with anyone. But obviously, those barriers break down as you age and crumble. The idea of self sort of crumbles from within.


Rik Godwin:

But basically, I started in the games industry through localization. Actually, I was a copy editor for a number of games. Perhaps the most significant was a game called Night Call, which is sort of a visual novel slash detective game, strangely enough. That came out a couple of years ago now. Through that, I was able to start writing in games. Through that, I did a bunch of marketing in games. I did a bunch of Kickstarters.


Rik Godwin:

I did the Chinatown Kickstarter, which strangely enough led to a very nice series of messages from Mark, asking if I'd like to come and write for the game. Now, Mark can correct me if I'm wrong here. But I think what led to this specifically was we had backer rewards and it was well-written. I was adding to what was already there, essentially. But at the start of every backer reward, I put in a little quote. Very purple prosy. Very noir influenced.


Rik Godwin:

There was just little bits of flavor text. And I think Mark really glommed onto that. That led to me writing the Rupert missions in the game, which is one of the first three clients you get. And then, eventually I went on to write the entirety of the main missions in the game. The missions you get after you've chosen your client and you move forward. Alongside General Interactive, I'm part of a narrative agency called Actezéro.


Rik Godwin:

We are parachuted into other game companies when their narrative departments are in trouble. That either means coming in and doing full narrative audits, doing narrative design, figuring out how to tell the story they have in a more effective manner. Including gameplay as well as just comprehension or writing as well. It means sometimes you have a team ... They're not experts in writing. They need someone to come in and help. We'll just come in, work with the team, actually write the dialogue in the game and help them out like that.


Larry Kilgore III:

You're like a narrative fixer.


Rik Godwin:

Basically. I'm not going to say I'm the Winston Wolf of narrative design, but that comparison has been made. Thanks, mom. Chinatown was one of the first games that I had a huge chunk of writing. I was super happy that Mark let me write the main missions of the game. To see it come out and get, especially for the writing, the reaction it's got has been really encouraging for me. That's been great. It's been a fantastic experience.


Mark Fillon:

I just wanted to add on, because Rik and Ricardo ... They'll always say things like, "It's great that Mark let us do this and let us do that." To be honest with you, the story of how I got involved with Rik and Ricardo was really funny. When I first saw Ricardo's work on Twitter, he had something like 10,000 followers. He already had a beautiful portfolio of work.


Mark Fillon:

I was thinking, "I want to message this guy, because his art is freaking beautiful. He's not going to reply, but I'll try." He replies and one message led to another. Eventually, he started working. I'm like the luckiest dev in the world. This guy just replied to me. Same thing with Rik. He was only supposed to write the Kickstarter text.


Mark Fillon:

I was even a little bit skeptical about giving that to someone else. I was like, "But who can write better than me?" Because I know the game really well. I read Rik's writing and I'm like, "I don't think I'm the right fit for this. I think Rik should write the game." That's basically the story of the team. Just as a nice summary of how we all started working with each other.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, it's good to hear that, you guys. The story is just something wonderful. That Mark found the people he was looking for and you guys are obviously very happy for the project you guys worked on. I want to get a little bit more into the details of how the game built up from development, but I'd like to really get into the game itself.


Larry Kilgore III:

I've played quite a few hours of it. I've had quite a lot of fun with it. CDA takes place primarily in Singapore in the not-so-distant future. It's very grounded in topics that are relevant to real world now. Politics and governmental corruption, the secret societies of the rich elite, religious controversy, and so much more. What were some of the inspirations that you had for the story behind the game and even the artwork and things like that?


Mark Fillon:

I'll let Rik and Ricardo give their influences, but at least, for me ... What's funny is that everyone in the team has their own perspective on the world. Their own political leanings. I'm particularly left-leaning. In the sense that, like many people in the world, I'm jaded when it comes to late-stage capitalism. A lot of that is reflected in the world-building.


Mark Fillon:

A lot of it is very, "Look what greed has done to the world. Look what happens when governments, who've just become too greedy, suddenly collapse and are unable to take care of their own people." A lot of that is reflected in the future versions of the cities within the game. It's especially true when it comes to locations in Singapore.


Mark Fillon:

Now, in terms of influence, you have those cliche answers. Obviously, you'll see a little bit of Blade Runner. Obviously, you'll see a little bit of Total Recall or even Black Mirror and The Matrix in the tone, in the style, in the feel of the game. But a lot of it was actually ... At least, for me, it was stuff like The Da Vinci Code. It was stuff like ... The Name of the Rose, I believe it was.


Mark Fillon:

Those old novels that are based on historical events and historical facts that feel like detective novels. Those are some of the unusual influences, at least in the world-building, for me. And then, I'll pass it on to Ricardo to see what influenced the visual language of the game.


Ricardo Juchem:

About the art, I was already working on Future Flashback. That is a cyberpunk adventure game yet to be released. But the funny thing is that, before working on this project, I was not a fan of cyberpunk. I started to be interested with the aesthetic while I was studying it.


Ricardo Juchem:

I almost learned from zero, the aesthetic. The influences went from Blade Runner, of course. Syd Mead. He made a lot of beautiful stuff. The movie from Ghost in the Shell. The movie is bad, but the art direction is fantastic.


Larry Kilgore III:

I will have to stop you there, because I loved Ghost in the Shell the movie.


Clinton Bader:

Wait. The live action one. Right?


Ricardo Juchem:

Exactly. The live action.


Larry Kilgore III:

Oh. The live action? Okay. I was thinking of the original anime.


Ricardo Juchem:

The anime is amazing. Another thing that inspired was Altered Carbon. I love the series. In games, the main reference was Deus Ex. It's amazing, amazing, amazing. Beside the work of games and television, the photography work of Liam Wong. He's a photographer that is specialized on night photography. He used to be an art director of Ubisoft.


Ricardo Juchem:

Right now, he is working with ... How is the name of the girl? The cute Japanese girl that presented The Game Awards. Ikumi. Something Ikumi, I think. But he opened and stood with her. About the politic view, I'm left wing as well. I'm glad that I could put on the artwork from Rio de Janeiro on the meatloaf mountain ... No. Sugarloaf. Sorry, not meatloaf.


Ricardo Juchem:

I wrote in Portuguese, "Dictatorship. Nevermore." Because we are living in Brazil a politic moment that people want dictatorship back. Some people. Like the far right wing. If I can put a message on again, warning people about this, I will do. I did this because it was important. Rik?


Clinton Bader:

Rik, you're up.


Rik Godwin:

I came at this from a slightly different perspective. I really went into the past really rather than looking at speculative fiction. I've always been a huge fan of Raymond Chandler. I love those hard-boiled detective novels from the 40s and 50s, so I went back into my Chandler phase and reread most of his books. The Big Sleep and books like that. But I also started reading detective novels that I hadn't read before. Both in the noir subgenre and others.


Rik Godwin:

I read an awful lot of James Ellroy, who is most famous for writing the book that was L.A. Confidential. But his debut book, Black Dahlia, is beautiful in its grotesqueness. It's this horrible world that portrays the L.A. Of the 1940s and 50s as this corruption-seeped landscape. This wasteland almost. I didn't want to go that far with Chinatown. Because if you look at Ricardo's arts, you can see that ... Although it has this cyber noir future to it, a la Blade Runner and things like that, it's also colorful. It's bright.


Rik Godwin:

We didn't really ... Or at least I didn't want the depressing, cloying miasma of the Ellroy books over Chinatown. I wanted something a bit more lighthearted that was still dealing with serious issues. Mark, actually, when I came on ... Because I came on after the initial premise of the game was written. Mark had written the entire prologue that was released as a demo before the game was launched. I played through that and Mark shared with me his outline for the overarching plot.


Rik Godwin:

Again, this is going to become a running joke of the interview, but I just want to thank Mark for giving me the leeway that he did in interpreting his vision with my own. I remember one of the things I miss most from the active development is these long two, three-hour chats we'd have over Discord that were just taking all sorts of subjects. Eventually, we nailed down this story that we were happy with. This twisty-turny, corruption-seeped storyline, populated by characters that above all, for me, were likable.


Rik Godwin:

Even the bad guys. I hope they have an impression beyond their place in the story. They're not cardboard cutouts. Well, no. You know what? There's one who is a cardboard cutout. But that's because I think the archetype of people he's based on are literal living cardboard cutouts. We didn't bother characterizing him too much, because I don't think the people he was meant to represent deserve that.


Rik Godwin:

But the rest of the characters, we really tried to get the idea of a plucky band coming together on, "Downfall's doorstep," as the trailer so eloquently put it. I didn't write that. I'm not calling my own writing eloquent. I just thought it was a really nice way to put it.


Larry Kilgore III:

I think it's interesting. You make the point about making the antagonists relatable. We did the Lacuna interview and we talked about that. I feel like good story, good narration ... Even the antagonists, they're three-dimensional characters. You want them to be relatable, because you want it to feel real.


Larry Kilgore III:

It's not always simply, "There's good guys and bad guys." There's a gray area. With humans, there's a gray area. It feels more realistic when there's something you can relate to about at least their motivations, if not the way they go about it. Or their ultimate goals.


Rik Godwin:

Well, no one in life sees themselves as the bad guy. Everyone sees themselves as doing the right thing. For whatever reason, they've managed to justify it to themselves. I don't think we wanted to put across our political treaties in Chinatown. It is an adventure game.


Rik Godwin:

We wanted players to have fun. But also, you're exactly right, Larry. Characters that are just cardboard cut-out evil. It doesn't work. No one sees themselves as the villain. We tried to put that across in the characters we came up with.


Clinton Bader:

What about the historical aspect? You touched on it briefly, Mark, with The Da Vinci Code and things like that. As soon as I fired this game up, I was like, "This is like the old Carmen Sandiego game." I was telling Mark before the cast, I used to play the DOS versions of these.


Clinton Bader:

I could still remember that stupid robot in the earlier ones that's like, "Warrant department. Warrant issued." And I'm like, "All right. Cool." But even the look and the feel a little bit. The idea of having to piece together these real world clues and things like that. Was it just the Carmen Sandiego things? Or were there other things that inspired that you?


Mark Fillon:

Every element of Chinatown Detective Agency, you'll find some sort of homage to the Carmen Sandiego games. Larry, Clinton, we were speaking about this prior to this interview. About how these were the games we grew up playing. These were games that if you think about it ... In that era, early 90s. At least, for me, all the way up to the late 90s, I was still playing the Carmen Sandiego games. Because I couldn't afford new games.


Mark Fillon:

During that era, the games that you'd play were Doom. Those very early FPSs. Your standard point and click games from LucasArts and Sierra. Carmen Sandiego just blew my mind, because it required not just dexterity with how you control the game, but with actual knowledge. The Carmen Sandiego series, for anyone in the audience who isn't familiar with the original, the way it was meant to be played, was shipped with an almanac.


Mark Fillon:

When you bought a copy of Carmen Sandiego, there's an almanac that you can use as a reference book. That's what the game asked you to do. That's what Carmen Sandiego did really well. And then, for two decades, nothing. No one ever refined that mechanic. No one ever explored it again. Well, you can make exceptions. There are notable games that do ask you to do some detective work or research as a way to break the fourth wall, but not the way Carmen Sandiego did.


Mark Fillon:

One really cool way to describe Chinatown Detective Agency is, "It's Carmen Sandiego for people who have grown up and are looking for something with a little more depth. Something that explores mature themes and much more complex topics." And so, you're absolutely right, Clinton. You'll see all these influences. The UI.


Clinton Bader:

Yep. Yep.


Mark Fillon:

The games from that era, the UI took up 40% of the screen. In CDA, you'll notice the same thing. The UI takes up a lot of real estate. You're going to see a lot of influences of Carmen Sandiego.


Larry Kilgore III:

The airport. The flying of planes from spot to spot too. That also reminds me a lot of that, where you'd see the little plane fly across the line.


Mark Fillon:

Part of CDA is the flight booking system. The flight booking system is a real flight booking system. We had to ask our programmers to create a flight booking system within the game. It works just like anything that you're used to.


Mark Fillon:

You have to put in the city. You have to put in the date. It'll show you results. You can book the ticket. It really feels like you're booking a real ticket and flying to those locations. Things like that add immersion to the game. I'm glad you guys noticed that. That was right off Broderbund's book. That's awesome.


Larry Kilgore III:

All right, guys. This has been a fun conversation so far and we've got tons more to talk about. Definitely diving in more to the development side of the game and what challenges you guys faced getting it to release. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be back with more from Mark, Ricardo, and Rik.


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 talking with Mark, Ricardo, and Rik. Members of the dev team for Chinatown Detective Agency. Let's shift gears a bit and go into the nitty gritty of the development of the game. We'll start with Mark. When did you start development for the game? What was your mindset into what kind of pieces you needed to put into place to make the game happen?


Mark Fillon:

Well, I think the very first thing that had to happen was ... The mechanics sort of wrote themselves. We knew that it was going to be an homage to the Carmen Sandiego games with a few twists and some innovations. But it really needed a killer plot. The story and world and plot of Chinatown Detective Agency was written in the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong in 2018. I was on vacation with my family and I was itching to write out the plot for the game.


Mark Fillon:

It was something like 11 or 12 at midnight. I popped down to a 24-hour McDonald's on the street in Kowloon, and I sat down and wrote the outline of the entire story in one sitting. It was the same approach that we took with Terroir. Even though I am not a visual artist, presentation has to be probably the most important thing when it comes to pre-production and thinking about fleshing out and developing a game concept.


Mark Fillon:

I knew I needed a killer artist, and I was very lucky enough to have Ricardo join the team. After writing sort of the outline of the plot ... We spent a good couple of months, just me and Ricardo, exploring studies of what the game can look like. Just like any game, if you looked at the prototype of 2018 to what the game is today, there's a massive difference. I'm sure Ricardo will get into the details of that later, but there was a massive difference in things like lighting. Things like the details of the actual craft of the environments.


Mark Fillon:

Once that was done, you had the outline of the story. Then, you had the visual language. You had the art direction. It was then down to Jenny. Jenny Hide is our lead programmer, whom I think you'd probably love to talk to Clinton, because she like you has a degree in physics. But I sat down with her to check if any of the mechanics that we were putting down were doable. We wrote the GDD, the game design document. All of this. The art, the storyline, and the game design document draft was completed in a period of around six to nine months in 2018 and 2019.


Larry Kilgore III:

I know one of the things we touched on a little bit earlier is that you guys are all in ... At least a few of you're in different time zones right now. We've got Rik. You're in France. Mark, you're in Singapore. Ricardo, you're in Brazil.


Larry Kilgore III:

I'm sure some of your other team members around the world are in different places and different time zones. What did your workflow look like? How did you schedule time to meet face to face? Was there a lot of stuff through email? Or did you make time to meet on Discord or through video chat or things like that?


Mark Fillon:

There's a lot of sacrifice involving the entire team involving Ricardo and Rik and Jenny. Everyone had to make sacrifices to find that sweet spot where we would all be online. For me, living in East Asia, that would be at night. For Ricardo, he's on the other side of the world. He'll wake up early in the morning just to join meetings. Just to join discussions.


Mark Fillon:

But look, this is probably important for devs out there who are listening to this. This is the new system. The costs of making a game ... Or at least the costs of making a game that has a real fighting chance at being successful are increasing. Because of inflation. Because of rising labor costs. Because of the expenses you'd have to deal with when it comes to your day-to-day, your daily burn rate.


Mark Fillon:

Remote working really is the only sustainable way to keep a young, small game studio alive. I think, at least from our learnings, having the team find that sweet spot. That few hours where everyone's online and working together. And then, everyone just goes off on their own and works in a silo. That's sort of the rhythm that you're going to have to find with your team in order to get things done.


Clinton Bader:

You touched on here a little bit, Mark, and somebody else can answer it if they want ... But the funding and things like that. The money it takes and how you can even get to the starting point of making a game. You guys were fortunate enough to have a Kickstarter that was successful.


Clinton Bader:

What do you guys think allowed you to be successful in your Kickstarter? Was there anything you guys thought in particular that resonated with people? Or were you ever worried that maybe the funding wouldn't get to where it needed to be?


Mark Fillon:

Sure. You know what? I'm going to let Ricardo and Rik chime in on this one. Ricardo, you did a crazy amount of social media sharing and helping build the audience. Didn't you?


Ricardo Juchem:

Yeah. Because I can say that it's my game too. I did this with pleasure. Because it was the first time, basically in life, that I was making something for myself as well. I was not just selling the game, but I was selling myself in a good way. Showing my work to the world. As I told you from the start, Mark, I always believed in this project.


Ricardo Juchem:

I am pretty proud of the project, of what we achieved. And I feel very lucky, because it's my first project. The first project as a lead art director. It's like a dream coming true. During the Kickstarter, there were people ... One of them was an idol from my childhood, because Sam Lake backed our project, the writer of Max Payne. He believed in our work. It was like, "We are on the right path."


Ricardo Juchem:

Other people in the industry started to follow the game and my art. About the success of the Kickstarter, we need to talk about Player Two as well. It was our PR company at the start of the project and on the Kickstarter. With this, Rik joined the team as well. But as the name itself says, Kickstarter is just a start. Because we got funded, but the game cost way much more. We need other funding partners. Mark can tell about it, but it was just a start.


Mark Fillon:

The total amount that we eventually earned from Kickstarter was something around $52,000 US dollars. For the size of the team we had at that time, it was just me, Jenny, Ricardo, a second programmer, and one freelance graphic designer. $52,000 was enough. Then, something happened that I think a lot of new game developers are never, ever prepared for. When you have a successful Kickstarter campaign, you start to get emails and calls from people. You start to get noticed. You start to get emails from publishers. People start DMing you.


Mark Fillon:

This happened to us. We spoke with a few publishers. Eventually, we struck a deal with Humble. They were the ones that were the most supportive. They were the ones that were most interested in making a deal happen. When that happened, suddenly we received funding that was way more than the Kickstarter campaign. That funding from the publisher expanded the team from four to about 11 people.


Mark Fillon:

When you expand at that pace within months, everything changes. It's hard to describe just how different it makes things. Suddenly, you need a producer to make sure everyone's doing the right task at the right time. Suddenly, you need to be paying more attention and sitting down with more members of the team more often. Making sure everything's working. I think that there is a huge gap in the education of independent game developers in how to sustainably and properly expand their team once they get the money. Do you guys know that show Silicon Valley?


Larry Kilgore III:

Yes.


Mark Fillon:

The one created by Mike Judge. He summarized that series, not in so many words, but he said, "Silicon Valley is about the fact that people who are most capable of success are those who are really bad at handling it," which means that a team that's capable of making a good game are probably not prepared to handle the success that comes with it.


Mark Fillon:

The larger we became and the more funding we got, things got really tricky and difficult to handle. It took time to really adjust to the expansion of the team, and adjust to becoming a crowdfunded game to a published game. I just wanted to add that out there, because I think that's something that new devs will probably appreciate.


Larry Kilgore III:

What did that look like for you? You're saying it was surprising and you had to adjust. What were some of the key things for you, Mark, as the head of the company and the head of the project that helped you adjust to that massive expansion?


Mark Fillon:

Larry. Scope creep. When you get new funding, you make the really bad mistake of developing a god complex. Thinking, "Now, I'm going to add multiplayer." But it's true though. Once you get more resources, you get more funding, you sometimes lose track. You sometimes lose your way. You sometimes veer off the brief.


Mark Fillon:

Sorry, I'm from advertising. I call it the brief. You veer away from the brief, and you suddenly let things creep in. Ricardo can attest to this. We initially planned for 30 locations. Chinatown Detective Agency released with 100 locations. Rik knows this. There were supposed to only be 15 missions. We ended up with ...


Rik Godwin:

I don't even know how many missions we ended up with. I feel partially responsible for part of that. Because I know, when we were writing the main missions, I think there was originally three cases. Inside that case, you'd have various puzzles and things like that.


Rik Godwin:

And then, I think it immediately expanded out to six and then contracted back down to four. But those four, each one was about the size that the entire main mission was originally intended to be. I take blame for that. Because brevity is not one of my strong points.


Clinton Bader:

One thing we like to focus on sometimes, especially with games that are available in early access or something like that ... But talking about the feedback that you get. The continuous feedback these days in modern game development. What feedback have you guys gotten? How did it affect the development of the game? How did your game grow and change because of it?


Mark Fillon:

We received the full spectrum of feedback from both the media and from our players. One of the coolest pieces of feedback we received was from Jordan Ramée ... I apologize if I mispronouncing his last name. From GameSpot, who said that Chinatown Detective Agency would go down as one of his favorite detective games ever.


Mark Fillon:

There are highs like that, but then you also receive really important, but hard to swallow feedback from players. Especially, when it comes to the design choices, which is natural. How can you ever know whether a decision you make in game design would be liked by the majority of the people? This happens often lately and it affects the way we update the game. One example is that I made the design decision to allow saving only when there's no active mission. Because I wanted to introduce that level of difficulty and challenge.


Mark Fillon:

I wanted to get players to sit down, finish the mission without standing up. But there's been feedback from the audience about how, "It's 2022 guys. I can't play a game without being able to save in the middle of the mission," because you never know when you have to get up and do something else. We're actually working on this right now. We've changed the entire save system because of feedback like this. But Rik, Ricardo. Are there other examples that maybe you want to bring up?


Rik Godwin:

Well, I was going to agree with Mark. The fact that Mark always said to the whole team that, "We are not making a game for everyone." It wears its influences on its sleeve. It's pixel art. It's calling back to the games we grew up with. Like you guys were talking about earlier. You add into that a level of difficulty that was intentionally fiendish towards the end. We have some puzzles at the end there that I was genuinely a little bit worried that ... Not that no one would crack them, because we're talking the internet hive mind here. They would get past it. But that were just going to be not fun.


Rik Godwin:

I was super happy that the feedback I saw didn't ever really broach the idea of it not being fun. It was just problems ... Like Mark was saying. Design decisions that just weren't hitting with a certain portion of the audience. Which I think, again, when you're dealing with a game that's this focused on a particular type of gamer, is natural. I think Mark phrased it really well. It's important feedback. It's difficult to look at.


Rik Godwin:

We had a couple of really quite scathing reviews, but I also think it's very important to read them and try and digest what it was that they didn't like. Rather than just casting it off as, "This guy just didn't get it." It's not helpful at all. It helps no one. I genuinely don't think that people who are out there reviewing the game are doing it in bad faith. I think if they didn't like it, they didn't like it. And so, those less positive reviews that we did have are just as important, if not more so, than the more positive ones you get.


Ricardo Juchem:

For me, one negative review that got me was from a person that liked the game, but they put honestly a negative review because the game was too short. It's a game with eight hours. We've got like three different endings. You're probably going to achieve all of them in about 15 hours. This was like, "Okay. You like the game, but the game is too short." I think that people are used to nowadays with games from AAA studios ... Multi-player games that give them 100 hours of playtime.


Ricardo Juchem:

People shouldn't measure the value of a game on the time that you will spend in it. Because if this happens, we are not going to get original stuff. We are not going to have experimentations. Even different art. We are going to have only future games with specific mechanics that make the player lose time and time. Hours and hours collecting small stuff. I believe in shorter games. I don't want to make a game with 20 hours, where the player doesn't get nothing from the game or the story or something like this.


Ricardo Juchem:

I think that people, if they like the game, they don't need to measure it by the time that they spent. People pay $10 for a two hours movie. They pay $15 for a Happy Meal that they eat in 10 minutes. I think that people should value the creator's work. There's one more thing that I noticed. When we launched the game, the reviews on Steam, most of them was negative. Because people that doesn't like something want to tell everyone that they doesn't like it.


Ricardo Juchem:

With the time, right now, we are blue on Steam. We are with positive reviews. Because people that really played the game enjoyed it, and gave the time after absorbing the experience. They are putting a real nice review of it. If you're launching a new game, expect that the first couple of reviews are going to be negative. Because people that hate, hate faster.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I will say, I certainly enjoyed the game.


Clinton Bader:

I agree. I really like it.


Larry Kilgore III:

We've got a couple minutes left. I want to just lastly cover ... Now that Chinatown Detective Agency is out, what do you guys have lined up next for your team?


Mark Fillon:

These folks have some announcements to make. But at least for Chinatown Detective Agency, there's a roadmap that we have. We have the DLCs that are planned for the next year, year-and-a-half. There's going to be more content that's going to come as time goes by. Including free content updates. But Rik, Ricardo, please go ahead and share where you guys are headed.


Rik Godwin:

For me, it's working on the DLC for Chinatown, which I'm super happy about. We've already had some conversations. Mark came to me with some initial outlines for the DLC. And of course, they were both fantastic. I'm already knee-deep in research for both of those. Unfortunately, everything else ...


Mark Fillon:

Are you learning how to play mahjong?


Rik Godwin:

I didn't know if I could say that. Yes. Majong is an extremely complicated game. My goodness. Apart from that, unfortunately everything I'm working on is under NDA, which is awful. I think I have a game that will hopefully be announced during the summer that I wrote. But apart from that, it's just a big letters of NDA in front of my, "Coming soon."


Ricardo Juchem:

Myself, I'm starting to work on a solo project called Dreams and Nightmares. Ricardo Juchem's Dreams and Nightmares. Because I want to try to experiment with narrative design as well. Just exploring. The idea is to make a series of shorter games with 30 minutes long games. I'm going to sell them for about two bucks. At least the first episode, because it's something that I'm learning.


Ricardo Juchem:

I'm going to learn coding or Unity. Something about music and writing itself. But it's going to be very autobiographical. I want to experiment with different visual languages as well. The first one can be a text word adventure. The next one, a walk simulator in 3D. I just want to explore different medias to get more reference to future works as well. It's going to be based on my life experience. People that I met, the things that I believe, but it's not going to be a realistic transposition. Because it's made of dreams and nightmares like life.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I will say, all of those projects sound great. I wish you all the best of luck. This has been a wonderful conversation. I've had so much fun. Unfortunately, we are at the end of our time. But I want to take one more chance to say thank you, Rik, Mark, Ricardo. It has been such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to join us here on PixelSmiths.


Larry Kilgore III:

The music in this episode is from the Chinatown Detective Agency soundtrack and was composed by Dmitrii Muchkin. Chinatown Detective Agency is available now on PC, Mac, Switch and Xbox platforms. To learn more about Mark, Ricardo, Rik, and General Interactive, follow them on social media. Or visit the General Interactive website. Links can be found in the episode description.


Larry Kilgore III:

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


Clinton Bader:

You can follow me, Clinton "Paperthin" Bader, on social media @paperthinhere and on Twitch at 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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