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Friday, October 9, 2015

Interview: Pencil Test Studio's Mike Dietz on claymation, The Neverhood, and Armikrog


There is just something about claymation that triggers memories of childhood; whether it was Bump in the Night or Gumby and Pokey, nearly everyone had at least one experience with the animation style. In 1996, Pencil Test Studios released a point-and-click adventure game titled The Neverhood, but it wasn't a typical game then or now: it was made with claymation.

Nearly 20 years later, those same folks are back with Armikrog. Two years ago they started a Kickstarter to help fund a game with the similar style, titled Armikrog. In the final hours, the Kickstarter reached and then exceeded its $900,000 US goal. Armikrog was recently released to the masses. We will have our review up on the game very soon, but currently we were just thrilled to have the time to chat with co-owner of Pencil Test Studios and game animation extraordinaire, Mike Dietz.

Related reading: Our 2013 interview with Pencil Test Studios' Ed Schofield.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): The Neverhood was released almost two decades ago. What inspired you to want to return to that style of game?
Mike Dietz (MD): Making The Neverhood was one of our most enjoyable experiences in game development, and we're huge fans of stop motion animation, so we've always wanted to do another game like it. However in the past twenty years there haven't been too many game publishers who shared our enthusiasm for the stop motion animated adventure game genre. Once crowdfunding presented itself as a legitimate way to fund at least part of a game's budget, we realized there might be enough fans out there to support a game like this.


DD: What is it about claymation that you find so interesting?
MD: More than any other form of animation, stop motion has a certain magical feel to it. Looking at stop motion, you can sense that these are real objects coming to life and moving around on screen, and there's something fantastic about that. It pulls you in in a way that other mediums don't. Think about all your favorite stop motion films, shows and specials like Nightmare Before Christmas, Wallace and Gromit, Coraline, Rudolph, Gumby and many many more. You can't quite put your finger on it, but they just feel a little more magical than other cartoon or cg animated productions.

DD: What kind of challenges are there in taking a unique style of animation like claymation, and spinning a game around it?
MD: The biggest challenge in creating a game in stop motion, working in clay and other physical materials, is the sheer cost associated with creating all the game's assets in terms of time, labor and materials. Everything you see on screen -- characters, sets, props, etc. -- has to physically be built and photographed. Nothing comes for free. And because everything is a real object, you are subject to the often restrictive laws of physics. When you work in CG, the more traditional route in game development, all of your assets are virtual, and as a result are much easier to iterate and you can cheat real world physics as needed.

DD: Claymation in general seems to be on the decline - we see fewer films and TV shows using it as well. Do you think it's an aesthetic on decline, or are there other reasons we see it less frequently these days?
MD: Hmmm, I actually would respectfully disagree with the notion that stop motion is on the decline. On the contrary, there is probably more stop motion going on across all of entertainment than ever before. In film, Laika and Aardman continue to put out stop motion feature films at a fairly steady rate with recent titles like Shaun the Sheep, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman, Coraline, Pirates! Band of Misfits and others. Both studios also have new stop motion films currently in the works, as do a number of other studios throughout the world. Anomalisa and To Hell and Back are two that are due out soon. There is a also a long list of recent, current and upcoming stop motion television shows such as Tumble Leaf, Robot Chicken, Supermansion, Frankenhole, Morel Orel. Many other TV shows have run special stop motion episodes in recent times, like SpongeBob, Community, Chowder and Adventure Time. There are also a number of thriving studios here in the L.A. that specialize in stop motion for television commercials.

Even games seem to have a lot of stop motion going on. In addition to Armikrog, there are more than a few recent and upcoming games produced in stop motion such as Hunger Beast, The Dream Machine, Tearaway, The Blue Flamingo, Lumino City and Jack Houston and the Necronauts.

Of course I admit I may be biased, but from my point of view, things have never looked more promising for stop motion, and we're happy to be part of that wave.


DD: A lot has changed since Neverhood was released. What have you done with Armikrog to modernise the way people play it, while also indulging the nostalgic who are coming to it as a Neverhood successor.
MD: Armikrog, like The Neverhood, is designed as a classic point and click adventure game and adheres to many of the conventions of that genre. There are third person environmental puzzles that require you to collect items and figure out ways to configure the environment to progress further. There are also first person puzzles that unlock items, story points and new areas in the game. We also have some more cerebral elements that allow you to make connections between visual and audio clues spread throughout the game in order piece together the back-story of where you are and how you got there. Like the Neverhood and many of our favorite games, we've kept the UI to a minimum in order to fully immerse the player in the experience. We've also departed from the design of some of our earlier games in that you can switch control of the characters on the fly, so you can decide whether to control Tommynaut or Beak-Beak depending on the current task at hand. Although the production processes were very similar on both games, the biggest difference people will see in Armikrog is the quality of the visuals. The advances in technology in the intervening 20 years have allowed us to present a much higher resolution and more visually lush experience.

DD: You were one of the most successful Kickstarters on record. What do you think drove that success, and what were the biggest challenges and opportunities you see in going to Kickstarter for funding?
MD: The success of our Kickstarter campaign was driven mostly by fans of games like The Neverhood who want to see more games like it. That said, one of the biggest challenges with Armikrog has been trying to strike a balance between giving players something similar to The Neverhood experience while also delivering something that feels new.

One of the other challenges was that, despite being perceived as a very financially successful Kickstarter, the money brought in from the campaign was considerably less than the budget for The Neverhood twenty years ago. People had expectations of Armikrog being similar in size and scope to The Neverhood, but Armikrog's budget was less than half of The Neverhood's even before accounting for 20 years of inflation.


DD: Do you see Armikrog spinning into a franchise? Why/ why not?
MD: We'd love to see more of Tommynaut and Beak-Beak in additional games and other media, but that will ultimately be up to the fans. If they want more, we'll certainly be happy to oblige.

DD: There's been a lot written in recent years about the indie "bubble". Do you see the saturation of games being released to be a problem as an indie developer? Do you think we're on the way to the bubble bursting? Why/ why not?
MD: Anything that becomes popular and successful runs the danger of becoming saturated, it's inevitable. Independent game development is no exception. The issue however is not that there will be too many independents competing with one another, but that the larger studios and corporations will move into the space and try to get their piece of the pie and start to drive true independents out. We've seen the same thing in independent film as well as content creation on the web. There will always be a place for true independents to express themselves, we just have to keep moving into new underserved spaces as current media becomes too crowded.

DD: Finally, what kinds of games do you like playing yourself?
MD: As a developer, we love games but find our time to play them at a premium, so we try to play games that can be experienced in smaller chunks of time. We also respond to artistically driven games. One of the games we've played recently was Monument Valley. What a fun, beautiful game. We also went back and spent some time with Fez, which has some great ideas. The one we're really waiting for is Cuphead. Old school arcade platforming with Fleisher-like animation styling. Can't wait!

- Lindsay M.
News Editor
Interview: Pencil Test Studio's Mike Dietz on claymation, The Neverhood, and Armikrog
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