Interview with Banov recently sat down with Greg Lobanov (a.k.a. “Banov”), creator of the innovative pirate-themed jRPG Dubloon, for a chat about his latest project, Phantasmaburbia. We also talk about RPG pricing and his experience so far with transitioning from free games to commercial work.

What gave you the idea for Phantasmaburbia?

I grew up in suburbs, and I’d frequently go out and explore what wilderness was available to me for the fun of it. A lot of those imaginary adventures fueled what would be come my later day work in video games. For this project I thought I’d try to work in a suburban setting for the game, and try to communicate the joy of suburban exploration. To that end, I also based many of the characters in this game on characters I’d drawn back in the day. Conceptually, the whole project is very personal to me.

That’s funny; I did a lot of that same suburban exploration when I was a kid as well. It never would have occurred to me to actually make the suburbs the setting for an RPG, though. Much of the game’s exploration seems to occur in spirit tunnels (extra-dimensional pockets that lead between suburban subdivisions); how do those relate to the suburban exploration motif? Are you going for sort of a Narnia thing, with the fantastic carefully hidden within the folds of the everyday?

That’s a great way to put it. The Spirit Tunnels are these celestial little zones where ghosts travel through, and they’re said to have always been there–it just took some awakening of the sixth sense to be aware of them. They serve as the game’s “dungeons,” where I was a lot more free to arrange puzzle elements and stuff in ways that are interesting to play but totally unrealistic for something human built.

They also add some spiritual “color” to the suburban landscape. In a remote area of the woods, for example, there’s a old wooden shack that burned down years ago. Right on top of it is a Spirit Tunnel that houses this ancient spirit of heat and flames. In subtle ways like this, the game suggests unperceived supernatural explanations for certain events and the placement of various landmarks in the town. So, yeah… that “fantastic hidden within the folds of the everyday,” for sure.

What made you decide to move from free releases to a commercial model?

I’ve been making games for a while. At some point I decided I wanted to sustain myself off of them, and so all of my latest work has been geared in some way to earn a little money on the side. I’ve done a flash sponsorship, and put out a mobile app–selling this game is what I see as the next logical step, getting my feet wet in another market, so to speak. I don’t expect this game to fare very well, but that’s OK, because I really do it for fun and for myself. It’s something of an experiment, I suppose.  Making it commercial also gives me some healthy incentive to work harder on the game and keep a better eye for quality to make it worth the price.

You mention the issue of value for money. I remember seeing somewhere that you plan to release this game at a $5 price point. Is that still the case? What made you arrive at that price?

Whoop! You are a little behind the times, mister… around October I announced the starting price would be $10. Picking that number was a very difficult process for me. I’m sure anyone who’s put thought into their game’s pricing has faced the same crisis; set the price too high or too low and the game either appears overpriced or without confidence.

I’ve seen a lot of RPGs priced at around $15-20. I chose $10 to stay competitive with them, but to also set myself apart from the cheapo casual games. Initially, I saw this project as being relatively small and something of a casual RPG, but since then the amount of content’s ballooned and the way I look at the game has changed, too.

Do you think it’s sustainable for RPG developers to price their games to compete with casual games?

I have no experience with pricing or with selling PC games, let alone an RPG, so this is the sort of question I may be better suited to answer once the game is in postmortem. That said, my guiding belief with this has been that RPGs should always be priced higher than their casual counterparts; there’s just so much more content and commitment involved for the player.  You can’t really put them next to casual games and expect people to buy them on impulse the same way they may purchase Angry Birds or something.
Pricing RPGs higher is more fair to the developers, and I think one way or another most players recognize that.

Have you been able to take anything from your experience with making and releasing Dubloon and put it to use with Phantasmaburbia? (Other than reusing the core engine, I mean.)

Dubloon was a huge project and I learned a lot from it. Just having that experience of working on and finishing such a big game made me feel a lot more prepared coming into this one. More importantly, Dubloon left me feeling a lot more comfortable working in the RPG genre… a lot of Dubloon was formed on concepts pulled from other games, whereas in Phanta I’ve felt a lot more comfortable to try things that I hadn’t seen in a game before. Having the engine core already there and working gave me a lot more space to focus on story and design, too.

What are you doing in Phantasmaburbia that you haven’t seen in a game before?

On the largest scale, I’ve structured the game’s story and dungeons in a way I haven’t seen before. To keep my explanation simple: the order of levels and what levels you see aren’t set in stone and will be different each time you play the game based on your choices. Most RPGs focus on “story” decisions, giving you dialogue trees and upgrade options that ultimately lead you to one of several endings. I feel that “choices” like that are meaningless in video games. In Phantasmaburbia, the story that plays out is always the same–no set of decisions is going to land you in the “good” or the “bad” ending, so no choice is “right” or “wrong.” I opted to create an RPG where the player makes choices that give them different gameplay, with the hopes that this makes the decisions you make feel more meaningful. This also leaves the game with great replay value, naturally. Liquid level order is nothing new to video games, but I haven’t seen it done in an RPG, or at least not in a way that’s so central to the structure of the game.

Another major component of the game are the puzzles. That should come as no surprise to those familiar with RPGs, but the types of puzzles here are conceptually different from those I’m used to playing in this genre. The puzzles are all built around 4 simple “ghost powers” introduced early in the game which are used to manipulate the environment in ways that are interactively interesting. There are no puzzles that have to do with talking to characters and trading items; in fact, there are almost no NPCs at all in the game, and no stated system of currency. There are also essentially no “puzzles” where you’re confronted with “Obstacle X” and simply must remember to use “Item Y” on it to proceed; each puzzle is meant to force some thinking and consideration, where you have control of many of the room’s elements but have to arrange them so that everything is “satisfied.”

These are the big 2 ways in which I really worked to differentiate my game from the crowd as far as gameplay. I’m already getting a little wordy here, so I’ll shut it for now. 🙂

How do you like using Game Maker? Do you have any plans to try out other platforms in the future?

I really love Game Maker. I’ve been using it since I was 12 and it’s never let me down. I’ve been dipping my toes into other tools like Flash and Unity, but I’m just so familiar with Game Maker that it’s hard not to use it for my big projects. In Game Maker I feel like I can program anything I want with it and thus never feel limited by technical ability. It’s been a huge factor in how much time I’ve been able to devote to the “fun stuff,” and how much content I’ve been able to add in what’s been an under-12-month development cycle. I always say there’s a chance I’ll turn my back on GM forever as I’m finishing the “next big project,” but I always come crawling back… so I think I should stop tempting fate and just keep doing what feels right for each project.

It’s probably a little early to ask, but do you have any plans for future projects post-Phantasmaburbia?

I tend not to think about this sort of stuff very much, which is also probably why I’m always able to finish these ambitious projects I start. I know for sure that I won’t be making another RPG for a long while… undoubtedly my next project’ll be something small and fun. My work tends to go in phases like that.

Anything else you want to say?

I’d urge interested parties to keep an eye on the website in the coming weeks–we’re looking to release an extended demo of the game for a limited time once some more music’s been filled in. Also, thanks so much for the interview! I had a lot of fun.

Thanks for your time.

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