Chris Picone - CSH Picone
James Spanos - Wormwood Studios (programmer)
Interview by Chris Picone, 15 September 2017
I am joined today by James, the programmer for Wormwood Studios. We discuss his recent releases Until I Have You and Earthling Priorities, Wormwood’s upcoming releases Fallen Gods and Strangelands, and a slew of side projects including a foray into music composition.
CSH: How did the studio come together? You’re scattered across the globe so there must be an interesting origin story!
James: This is a funny story, and possibly a world first: Vic was an artist looking for a writer. It's always the other way around, so that makes the project interesting for everyone. He posted in the AGS (the game's engine) recruiting section (where people can offer or ask for collaborations). Intriguing. I asked if there was an opening for a programmer, but there wasn't, so I suggested that they contact me if they need help with something advanced. The advanced thing came to exist, and after helping out with 2-3 of those, they decided to have me work on Primordia full-time.
CSH: With an artist, a writer, and a programmer, that’s pretty much all bases covered. Did you ever need to call in outside help?
James: We obviously had to bring in talented people to work on voice acting, even though we've actually recorded lines ourselves for Primordia. But nothing major, of course. Vic has also been passionate about sound effects and music, even though we did end up getting help with that for Primordia by hiring Nathaniel Chambers, who did an amazing job for it. We usually run auditions for voice acting, so it's never the same kind of people. And then there's the testers obviously, and I've personally used a text editor for "Until I Have You" to help a bit with the flow of written speech, typos and the like.
CSH: I’ve got to applaud your efforts auditioning the voice actors – Primordia had some of the best voice acting I’ve ever come across in a game, and it really fit the mood of the game.
There seems to be a lot of time between game releases for the studio. Is game developing just a hobby or part-time job for you? If you have other jobs, what are they, and how have they influenced your work?
James: As far as I know it’s a part-time thing for Vic and Mark, but for me it's a full time job. Between Primordia and Until I Have You, I've helped code the following projects: The Cat Lady, Downfall, Technobabylon, Shardlight, Mage’s Initiation, Earthling Priorities. Some have been more demanding than others. Cat Lady was coding the interface, Downfall was patching up the interface, Technobabylon was porting to IOS, Shardlight was porting to IOS. Mages Initiation was mostly coding the combat section, but there have been other tasks involved as well. Earthling Priorities was a freeware release, but I coded it entirely on my own. I believe these projects helped improve my workflow and communication skills, and how I work as part of a team.
CSH: Looking at those games, I’m seeing a few patterns. Shardlight and Technobabylon are Wadjet Eye games, as is Primordia. The rest look like adventure games - most of which also seem to share similar themes, and they’re all indie games. How did you end up in this niche? Do you think you will continue working on indie games or would you like to work for one of the big developers one day?
James: My big love for Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck's Revenge led me to this niche. Finding a community and an engine focused on recreating the feeling of adventure games of the late 80s/early 90s was a stroke of luck. I stuck with it, both the engine and the community, and that's how my part in Primordia came to happen. For now I think working on independent titles offers oneself a liberty and creative control that being in a major developer wouldn't. That's something I appreciate and cherish about the industry in general.
CSH: I grew up with the adventure games you’re talking about. The King’s and Space Quest series, obviously, but also the Hugo series, Kyrandia, Loom, so many more – so many memories.
Do you have any hobbies outside video gaming?
James: I’m taken up composing music at the moment, semi-pro, semi-hobby. I'm enjoying it so far, learning a lot in the process as well, and getting involved with a few projects here and there. I've been trying to keep with a schedule of composing one song per week for a while now, and so far that has been working. Here's a link to my soundcloud profile where I upload my compositions: https://soundcloud.com/ledzepforever
CSH: I listened to the portfolio, it’s great music for gaming! I'm impressed by the range. Do you sell it to developers to use in their games? Or use in your own? Or is it just a hobby at the moment.
James: Thanks for the nice words about the music. Some of it I've sold, some of it no. It's a phase for now. I'm experimenting on it, seeing where it takes me.
CSH: Back to gaming, then. Last year, you released one of your side projects, Until I Have You. Tell us about that?
James: The game is heavily inspired by movies like Blade Runner, NEON-Genesis Evangelion, Perfect Blue, Brazil, in terms of its atmosphere and neo-noir style. Its philosophical side is mostly inspired by Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain,
and Texhnolyze, that focus on the topic of Man vs Machine. In addition, it is not afraid to portray raw violence, like Hotline Miami and Splatterhouse. I'd say a good description of it would be Hotline Miami meets Blade Runner, directed by Satoshi Kon (a Japanese anime director famous for portraying madness and blending reality with dream). It's a platformer, albeit a pretty hard one (or so I've been told), but one that has been designed with care and love. It's a game created by me and Andrea Ferrara. We both designed it, but he did the art and I did the coding and the music. It has been released for a year and a few months now. Not a lot of people know about it, but those quite few that have given it a shot, have appreciated it, which is wonderful.
CSH: Andrea isn’t a member of Wormwood Studio – how did that project come about?
James: Andrea and I knew each other in the forums, but our friendship came to exist through the AGS Irc. I hadn't worked with Andrea before, and I made a prototype one afternoon, which made Andrea go "we got to make this game!" and we did.
CSH: Until I Have You is chalk and cheese compared to Primordia: First, it’s a side-scrolling action game whereas Primordia is a point-and- click adventure. But more obviously, Andrea Ferrara’s gory Art Noir contrasts starkly with Victor’s dystopian biomechanics. Talk us through some of your thinking?
James: At the time, I really wanted to do a platformer, and especially one that's more neon cyberpunk than dystopian cyberpunk. I've had a lot of ideas concerning platformers, and I've implemented them on Until I Have You, in a way that every chapter out of the total 12 the game contains, is different from the previous. The choice in the art depends on the game's content rather than anything else. I preferred flashy bright colors to dimmed desaturated barren locations. Plus Vic was busy working on other things at the time, so I teamed up with Andrea.
CSH: What are you working on now that Until I Have You is finished? For a small developer, Wormwood Studios sure have a lot of games being developed at once!
James: I just finished working on Earthling Priorities, a freeware game by Konstantinos Dimopoulos, Daniele Giardini, Chris Christodoulou and myself. We're also trying to finish up Strangeland and trying to progress with Fallen Gods.
CSH: Why a freeware game? What do you get out of that as a developer?
Sometimes, especially for something relatively small like Earthling Priorities, it's never gonna work out as a commercial venture. Even as developers we love playing games, and we love having people to play our own games, so it's refreshing to make something that will only bring publicity and no income. Game making doesn't always have to be about money, sometimes you just want to sink into something silly and non-serious and experiment. You know, have fun. That's what matters.
CSH: Without spoiling too much, what can you tell me about Strangeland and Fallen Gods? Will you be taking on any other side projects in the near future?
I'm currently trying to get something started (not even at the concept phase right now, so there's nothing to show), concerning Fallen Gods. I think Mark is the better person to ask. It's his baby, has been for a long time now. Plus I don't want to botch the lore, he'll have my head. While Strangeland will be a familiar experience for the majority of the players, it is also very unique. Strangeland chooses a very common subject, suicide but approaches it in a surreal kind of way. It's a project that was started based on the initiative of entering it to the Adventure Game Jam, but alas we're rather to the point, or very off when it comes to deadlines, so for now we're expanding it into a bigger game, and we'll see where that will take us.
CSH: Have any of your games been influenced by any other media? Books or movies?
James: Books and movies have of course been an inspiration for Until I Have You. As a creator (because I wasn't very involved with that with Primordia, that was Mark and Victor doing their thing), I'm not afraid to show the inspiration to the player. Sometimes hiding it even if it's obvious kind of breaks the moment, and the immersion, but blatantly putting it out there tends to work in one's favor more commonly.
CSH: Wormwood Studio’s fanbase seems to be very loyal and inspired, with plenty of fan art and cosplay to be found. To what do you attribute this level of loyalty and inspiration?
James: We put a lot of love in our work, and I think people appreciate that and it also emits from our projects. And that is what creates a loyal fan. And loyal fans like to cosplay, they like to draw, they like to create more of what is already there.
CSH: As the coder, you’re something of an unsung hero. Does that bother you at all? How did you get into coding games as a profession?
Not really. I always found myself as a facilitator. A means to a way. It's funny to know that what stops a game from existing is you, as a programmer, and you alone have the primal task of giving it life. And that's a nice feeling, to see all the aspects of game design come into a coherent whole. I personally got into it because I couldn't draw (still can't), I couldn't write, so I had to be able to do some part for the ideas I had in my head and wanted to turn into games. So I took up coding.
Thanks so much for your time, James. I’m actually playing Until I Have You at the moment, when I get a few spare minutes here and there between assignments, and I’d happily recommend it to anyone that enjoys platformers. I wish you luck with your music, and hopefully we can catch up again when Strangeland and Fallen Gods are a bit closer to release. Cheers!