Orchid of Redemption
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Alexander Thumm - Orchid of Redemption
Interview by Chris Picone, 16 February 2023
With me today is Al, fellow Aussie and lead developer of Orchid of Redemption, here to talk about his exciting up-and-coming golf-game-with-a-twist, Joon Shining. Some of you might already be vaguely familiar with the game from when it first emerged into Early Access in its former incarnation Mage Drops. My initial impressions were that I was really impressed with its gameplay, an innovative take on what for me is an old genre (I grew up with the early Links golf games), but that the game was still in fairly early stages of development (very enjoyable but only first cup was available) and the graphics, while not bad, were lacking polish. The team have come so far with Joon Shining that it could easily be mistaken for a different game.
CSH: Aussie developers are few and far between so I’d love to know more about you and your team! First - where in Australia are you?
Al: Orchid of Redemption, based in Adelaide, South Australia, is my studio - it’s more like a label actually. Lamplight Forest is the official company, and I call Orchid of Redemption a micro-studio. It gives me the freedom to self-publish smaller and more experimental games while Lamplight Forest develops larger and more ambitious projects.
CSH: I’m glad you cleared that up; I’ve seen both Orchid of Redemption and Lamplight attached to the title at different times over the last couple of years but I’d never quite been able to work out whether it was partner companies working together or a subsidiary company or whether one was supposed to be the publisher. Since Joon falls under Orchid’s banner, let’s focus on that.
Al: Orchid is about as indie as it gets at the moment. We have no outside funding so the production budget is a combination of profit share and contractors paid straight out of my pocket. That means there’s not really a “team” as such, as contractors come and go as their roles are needed. For example, there aren’t many characters in the game, so character concept art, character modelling and animation roles were each only a few weeks or months out of the 2 year development process.
Myself, the composer/writer Angus Barnacle, and the other writer Camilla Greene are basically the core team – which is unusual in game dev for a composer and writer to be so instrumental to a project, but it really speaks to how much work Angus and Camilla put into making the story and music really shine. It also speaks to me taking on too many roles myself (I’m the game designer, coder, level designer, art director, graphic designer, I make the trailers, etc., etc.), but that’s pretty much every indie’s story - at least for their first game.
Angus and Camilla are based near London. The game’s main environment artist Daniel Agerman is based in Adelaide, but pretty much everyone else is from all over the place! We’ve had contractors from Amsterdam, Malaysia, Canada, Sydney, etc.
CSH: That’s a surprisingly global workforce for a little indie studio based in South Australia! What sort of experience are we talking? Has your team you always worked in the gaming industry?
Al: I’ve been working in games for about 8 years now but I came from an academic background in music technology. Some of our contractors were recent game student graduates, some have been working in the industry for several years. It’s a real mixed bag, but being a relatively low budget indie game we couldn’t afford any veteran developers, so most people who worked on the game have only been doing game dev 5 years or less.
CSH: In all honesty, it’s impressive that you were able to pay for the contractors you did use – it’s very common for indie developers to have zero budget. You mentioned it being strange that your composer was so instrumental (badoom, tish) to the game’s development. And you’re right, so what can you tell us about that?
Al: Angus has done an incredible job of the soundtrack. I can’t say for sure, but it might be the first game ever to be composed entirely in just intonation (which, if you’re not a music nerd, you should look up what that means). Angus and I had previously done a huge amount of work together on another (as yet unreleased) game called Pallas of Vines, an amazing 3rd person musical puzzle adventure, so I knew from that collaboration that Angus works best when the various visual contexts in the game are well fleshed out. Fortunately, Joon Shining’s 8 worlds are all very distinct biomes and I had worked them out pretty early in development, so Angus really made the most of that, with each world’s music having its own distinct instrumentation and radically different personalities. Even if we didn’t have a story in this game, the pairing of the music and visuals alone would take players on an epic journey!
The music also pushed sections of the game into really interesting directions - the music of the ocean and ruins worlds both have a quirky sense of humour to them that I never would have imagined, and the celestial void world’s music is a real experimental curveball - but when you look at the visual context of that world it makes perfect sense, but still (for me anyway) drags me out of my comfort zone as a listener!
Angus has said a little more about the soundtrack here. If you’re at all interested in soundtracks it’s a great read: http://lamplightforest.com/joon-shining-soundtrack.html
CSH: Thanks for that, and if anyone else wants to check it out I always compile any links at the bottom of my interviews. Music and sound is often under-rated in video games but it really can make such a huge difference and take us on an emotional journey. I have a confession to make now: When I was first invited to review Joon Shining, I didn’t actually realise it was the same game as Mage Drops. I mean, there were plenty of similarities, but I thought Joon Shining must have been an expansion or a sequel. Much has changed! What can you tell me about the move from “Mage Drops” to “Joon Shining”?
Al: Although a few people hinted to me that the name Mage Drops was bad I didn’t get the hint at all! I admit I had low ambitions for this game when I first decided to put in on early access around 2 years ago. The gameplay was solid, but the art was truly terrible back then. To me the name Mage Drops echoed that kind of “humble to a fault” feeling of the game at that stage - it doesn’t roll off the tongue, phonetically it stops short.
But as fate would have it, one day I discovered an old series of games called Magical Drop, so I asked an IP lawyer if it would be a problem and he said yes it would mean we couldn’t trademark Mage Drops. So I worked with the writers to come up with a new name. I decided on the name Joon for the game’s hero, and because the story was all about character development, and a journey of seeking perfection, we landed on “Joon Shining”. Which I didn’t love at first, but has really grown on me - now I think it’s perfect! I decided on the name Joon (with that spelling) before I’d looked it up to make sure it wasn’t taken, and was delighted to discover it’s also a Persian word meaning soul/spirit/life. A fortunate coincidence!
CSH: Good thing you talked to the lawyer – I never would have thought “Mage Drops” would be too close to “Magical Drop” to prevent trademarking, particularly when the games are so drastically different to each other that it’s immediately clear there’s no foul play. In fact, Joon Shining is drastically different to most games out there – golf-based, obviously, but using magic to manipulate your ball rather than just controlling direction and swing power makes it really stand out from its peers. And the inclusion of so many dynamic obstacles and traps I found almost made it feel more like a puzzle platformer than a golf game at all. There’s a lot going on. So, what were the main inspirations behind Joon Shining?
Al: Obviously the golf aspect is in there - but I don’t play golf (real or virtual) - I’m much more interested in the ruleset of golf as a game designer. When you think about all the different sports in the world, it’s pretty remarkable that the rules of golf are so simple. A lot of sports probably start off as a simple idea, but more and more rules get added as the game evolves. Often these make the game run smoother, but the wonderful simplicity of the initial idea lost. Anyway, that’s what really intrigues me about the rule-set of golf. And that minimalism lends itself to precise play, and it’s this little ball in the midst of big nature all around it. All those things really speak to me.
But what I don’t like is the lack of dynamism, especially in golf video games. You hit the ball, then wait, then hit it again. Probably the only golf video game that informed some of Joon Shining’s design is Mario Golf Toadstool tour, which is definitely guilty of that. They have all the Mario ideas they could play with, but the core golf mechanic is dry as anything. It’s a curious game actually because it seems like they designed it as a regular (ie non-Mario) golf game at first, then the further into it you get, the more “Mario” it gets, adding pipes, mushrooms, big Bullet Bills etc. But definitely one or two levels in that game were beautifully designed and have stayed with me years later.
But there was this other golf game - which I wish I could credit but I have no idea what it’s called, and it’s an obscure indie from maybe 10 years ago that I saw once on TIGSource or somewhere like that. It was a 2D puzzle platformer where you control a human character, so literally running and jumping around puzzle levels, but also playing golf at the same time. I never played it, I just saw some videos, but that’s at least where the one-way walls in Joon came from.
Pinball was also a big inspiration. Again, weirdly, I don’t actually like real or virtual pinball, but I had played Yoku’s Island Express (a great pinball metroidvania with a wonderful art style), and while it didn’t directly influence Joon Shining, I’m sure it’s in my subconscious there playing a part.
CSH: Pinball! I didn’t see that coming.
Al: What I love as a designer about pinball is the “one button to rule them all” idea. No matter what manually moving parts you have on a pinball table, it’s always just one button that does everything. So for Joon I did exactly that - the Shift key (on PC) activates anything in the game with a double-ring symbol on it. At first I had literal pinball-like flippers in the game, then the concept just grew organically from there when I realised anything could be triggered or toggled with the shift key. So I added rotating platforms, toggle-able airstreams, giant grow-able flowers, growing trees-as-platforms, etc., etc., all controlled with this one button. It’s one of those ideas that’s so simple it goes right past you, but whenever I stop and think about it as a game designer, I think it’s ingenious! I’ve even put the same concept into other games I’m developing and it works amazingly well, and continues to evolve as a concept. I hope to see other devs steal the idea and run with it!
So that’s one part of the “making golf more dynamic” concept. But the other came even before the pinball idea - and this is the “braking” and “roll-on” concepts (press down to brake, press up to release friction to keep rolling). These work great, and have a surprising high skill ceiling for mastery, and are really the solid game-design foundation of the game. So basically I made the initial whitebox prototype of aiming and hitting the ball, but the ball wouldn’t stop easily and so golf-platforming in that prototype was frustrating because I kept falling off edges into the void. So I added a brake button and it all went from there. The Orchid of Redemption tenet of “minimum loveable product” (MLP) really goes a long way sometimes. That’s what allowed me to say “I could grapple with working out how to get these ball physics working better, and understanding friction better etc., but is there a simpler solution?” And the simplest solution was to add brakes! The more I work with this MLP idea, the more I feel like it’s just about recognising your own strengths and working from there, rather than doing things the way you’re conditioned to think they should be done.
CSH: I’ve interviewed a lot of developers over the years and being the aging grognard gamer I am, I consider myself fairly “well read” as fair as videogames go. It’s not often I find myself surprised in these interviews but you really got me there – not just with the pinball but just the general idea that you basically grabbed a bunch of games, none of which you play or even particularly enjoy, and somehow mashed them together into something totally new. That’s one for the books. Going to wrap up now. I have a policy to ask this question every time I interview a developer: Game development’s a learning experience as much as it is a creative experience. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
Al: It definitely bums me out seeing older videos of the game looking pretty ugly - and in those moments I feel like it was way too soon to put it out on Early Access. But I don’t necessarily think that was the wrong call because every bit of feedback we got along the way drove me to make the game better and helped me to more deeply understand that the public doesn’t see games the way game designers do. And in a lot of ways they’ll see it more clearly as a cohesive whole - and can be way more forgiving of flaws than I expected.
Like any expert at something, you can easily get to a point where you can pull a thing apart in your mind and see, or at least imagine, how it was made, know all the tricks, etc., but a lot of experts are bad at putting it back together again, or at least forgetting their expertise when it comes to enjoying the cohesive whole for what it is. The average player doesn’t have that problem! So as a designer those raw player experiences are golden, on so many levels. And I’ve learned those need to be forever humbling and inspiring. And that’s when I’ve discovered truly joyful moments for myself (and hopefully for players) when I’ve been watching players on a stream for example, and I have emotional reactions that I don’t have a name for! Joon is full of moments that are something like schadenfreude, but the game itself is so serene and sincere that it doesn’t convey the cruelty of schadenfreude. So what’s the word for a joyful version of schadenfreude? I don’t think there is one!
CSH: I think the joyful version of schadenfreude is still schadenfreude! I do prefer to see people succeeding in life though, so with Joon Shining almost behind you, what’s next for Orchid of Redemption?
Al: We always have new things in the works. The Lifetime and The Wakers are the two games that we’ve started talking about publicly, and we have a few other demos that are pretty close to publisher-ready too!
The Lifetime is a puzzle platformer race-against-time with a striking comic visual style, and metroidvania adventure elements. We’re currently showing this around to publishers. Check it out here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/2015480/The_Lifetime/
The Wakers is an orbital-camera (think the indie game Sizeable) point and click puzzle game. This one will very likely be our next self-published project. It’s narrative driven, but disrupts the usual point and click adventure structures by having physics and elemental based puzzles (fire, wind, magnetism etc), an overworld / level-based structure and a truly unique inventory system which is a meta-puzzle in itself that interconnects all the levels in the game! And it has that inimitable Orchid of Redemption serene aesthetic. https://store.steampowered.com/app/1867500/The_Wakers/
Thanks Al, for both your time and your openness; I found our chat very informative and I think there’s also some great advice in there for any other indie developers. The biggest takeaway for me is your “one button” philosophy, which definitely resonates with me as someone who grew up gaming in the 80s. Controllers and games both became more complex over time, and that definitely has its benefits, but sometimes less is more – sometimes it’s better to come up with new and creative ways of using an ability rather than just slapping in new abilities and I think Joon Shining really nails that. Thanks for a fun game and a fun interview!
Joon Shining Steam page:
Joon Shining Soundtrack:
Lamplight Forest website:
The Lifetime Steam page:
The Wakers Steam page: