Matt Kap, the creator of Castle in the Darkness and founder of LABS WORKS, showed at BitSummit Vol. 6 his latest project:
Astalon: Tears of the Earth. We used the opportunity to talk with him about his new game and his passion for retro-styled art and music. The interview was conducted by PushDustin, Nirbion, and MasterofBear.
Big thanks to Zedi for help with the transcription!
Nirbion: Thanks for taking your time for us. Do you want to introduce yourself to our readers?
Matt: Sure. I’m Matt Kap, I’m the final boss at LABS Works.
Matt: I’m working on a game called Astalon: Tears of the Earth and in the past I made a game called Castle in the Darkness and I was the lead artist on The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and – you know – some other games as well.
Nirbion: Would you like to introduce new game Astalon: Tears of the Earth to our readers?
Matt: Yes, I’d love to. So we haven’t really shown a lot and that’s the kind of cool thing about BitSummit here. I’m showing basically [it to] everyone at the same time and it’s cool to get it all over within the same weekend. But anyway, it’s like a retro exploration platformer and on first glance, it looks kind of exactly what you’d expect. But we’re really trying to make it a weird game and by the end of it, the game changes as you play it. It’s not really easy to tell that in the demo that’s upstairs**.
**referring to the BitSummit Volume 6th show floor
Nirbion: Yes, I played the demo yesterday and I really thought it was going to be in a style of a Metroidvania game. So I’m really surprised to hear that it’s going to be different or change its shape!
Matt: Yeah, so basically you play as 3 characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the world is a desert and there are not many people left. Structures come out of the ground from before the planet got destroyed, so they’re exploring these ruins and towers. One [of the towers/ruins] in particular is poisoning the water to their village. So the three explorers; a warrior, a wizard and a thief, they’re going to look for the source of the poison and they want to save their village.
PushDustIn: So there is something like a randomization in the later part of the game?
Matt: It’s not randomization and I don’t want to give too much away, but a lot changes as you go up the tower. There’s a lot of weird systems that come into play that make the game more of a risk & reward kind of thing. It is kind of Metroidvania like actually.
But what you can actually see in the demo upstairs; when you die, you get brought back. So you start at the beginning of the tower again. But everything that you did in the tower in the last run stays like that. If you unlock a door or get an item, you keep it. Later on, you won’t have to start at the beginning of the tower, right, there’s gonna be ways that you can kind of shortcut.
PushDustIn: It’s kind of like that cave in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? The dungeon you keep going back to everytime you get a new item and you get further and further- or is it Spirit Tracks?
Nirbion: Well at least saves all the progress that you made in the game and it’s not getting lost when you lose.
Matt: That’s right, Yeah. You don’t lose the progress, it autosaves.
And then there’s gonna be a very important thing that happens whenever you die that… I’ll take about that more in the future.
PushDustIn: Related to maybe to the ending? (laughs)
Matt: Related to… Many things.
Matt: Like I said, it’s weird. It’s gonna be weird.
MasterOfBear: This game has a lot of tricks up its sleeve it seems.
Matt: That’s right! It’s all tricks.
Nirbion: The game looks very faithful to an NES game from the pixel art and it’s not just mimicking, or just pretending. I mean when I played it yesterday I really thought “OK, that game could have come off an NES”. How did you achieve that art style? What were your secret tricks for achieving that NES style?
Matt: Mainly years and years of practice (Laughs). I was born in the 80’s so when I was a kid the first and most important video games that I ever played were those types of games, you know, Castlevania, Metroid, the usual ones. But also I really like the weird ones, the ones you’d see in magazines, that would never come to Canada in my case and yeah, I don’t know, I got inspired by that art style. I like the limitations. It brings a feeling of nostalgia to me, I just love it, everything about the NES or Famicom. I think [it] looks and sounds cool. So for this game, I don’t know, I’ve always been drawing like that and I’ve just been getting better and better at it. Maybe this is the peak of my skills.
I’m glad that you think it looks really faithful, that is exactly what we were aiming for.
Nirbion: You’re also working as a musician. Where do you pay attention to those limitations to the NES era? What’s the main appeal, what’s important to create music for an NES games?
Matt: OK, so this is an interesting question. I think that in any well-written piece of music or song there’s a rhythm, a bass or chords, and a melody. If the melody is harmonized that’s 4 channels which is exactly what the NES had.
When you arrange it into a white noise channel for the rhythm- for the percussion I guess. You know, a triangle channel for the bass and then two pulse wave or whatever it’s called for the harmonized melody. It’s the cleanest, simplest way to write something cool. If you can make it stand out and memorable in those 4 channels then I think it’s not much of a limitation at all. It’s the basics and you can build cool stuff with that and later on if you write something cool you can rearrange it with like REAL instruments or whatever and add layers and layers of all sorts of stuff. But those 4 main things, that’s very important.
Nirbion: That’s very important for an NES music soundtrack?
Matt: For any music, not just NES. But NES limits you at that. So they kind of thought it out pretty well back then when they were designing the NES sound chip.
Nirbion: What caught my eye: On the website of your company, LABS Works, it is mentioned that Astalon: Tears of the Earth is the start of a new series. Are there already plans for new games within the Astalon series?
Matt: Yes. And there may already be a prototype or two.
But I can’t really talk much about that at this point.
Nirbion: But it’s going to be a bigger franchise, right?
Matt: Yeah, well. At least that’s the plan. The story takes place over generations but this game is the story of those particular three characters.
But there’s going to be links to other episodes that I… can’t talk about. (laughs)
PushDustIn: For the sequels that you’re prototyping: Will they be drastically different in gameplay style?
Matt: Yes! Very much so. I want every Astalon game to be different. I don’t know if you guys played Castle in the Darkness, that was my first game.
Nirbion: Unfortunately not.
Matt: That’s OK. Well. It’s kind of similar aesthetically like NES, Metroidvania, pixel art, etc. But it was a lot more cookie-cutter Metroidvania whereas Astalon is on purpose made to be stranger and more just weird, just not cookie cutter. The more I showed about the game and the more people are going to play it when it comes out they’ll realize that it’s just different. I want the same thing for the other Astalon games eventually, I don’t want to follow the formula set by this one. I guess the only consistent thing is that they’re all going to be weird.
PushDustIn: All exist in that world?
Matt: Exactly. It’s more about the lore that connects them. But that’s all it’s gonna be.
PushDustIn: Because it’s similar to Rain games with their Words of the West and they have another game coming out Teslagrad and another one and they’re all completely different.
Matt: Really!? Same Universe though?
PushDustIn: Same Universe.
Matt: All these people beat me to my own ideas!
Nirbion: But I think that serves as a motivation to surprise players.
Nirbion: Like f.e. give them something new they don’t expect.
Matt: Like for instance. Every Metroidvania game has a double jump and Astalon won’t have that. I want the upgrades to get you past certain obstacles to be different. So yeah, I’m really trying to think of different ways to make it wacky.
PushDustIn: Think outside the box.
Matt: Yeah, exactly…. Taco Bell… Think outside the box.
PushDustIn: About how long is the game supposed to be? How long will it take players to complete?
Matt: This is uncertain at the moment. When I started doing the game, I was working by myself and I was coding it by myself as well using Clickteam Fusion. But as it turns out, it’s really hard to port games like that to consoles, which is something that I really want for this game. Because my last game [, Castle of The Darkness,] didn’t make it to consoles and I know a lot of people wanted for it too, I did as well. So we decided to make the jump to Unity. Now I’m working with a programmer and that actually meant we had to restart development of the game.
But since I’m working with a programmer now, there’s a lot more I can add and I don’t have to worry about how I can make it work. Because he knows way more about programming than I do and so the games kind of ballooning a little bit. But it’s becoming expandable. When I’m designing the levels or the rooms and, I can add to it very easily.
Originally I wanted for it to be maybe a 4-hour game. It was going to be a small project but now it’s going to be closer to 10 to 15 [hours].
PushDustIn: Is there anyone else working on Astalon?
Matt: Yes. As a matter of fact, there is.
The Unity programmer, his name’s Jon, he’s very cool. Very good programmer.
And for the character art and the promotional art, we actually got Ryūsuke Mita, who is from Japan. He’s a manga artist and he’s the creator of Dragon Half that was pretty popular back in the day, the early 90’s I think. He’s a friend of mine so we’re working together on that. He’s doing all the promotional art and I’m proud of that!
Nirbion: That’s awesome!
PushDustIn: That’s fantastic!
Matt: But about working with people around the world. I’m in Canada, Jon’s in France and Ryūsuke is in Japan. And my other buddy Wayne was helping with some of the tiles and he lives in the states so it’s kind of the same thing. Oh! And DANGEN is also in Japan. So organizing calls that people can all be in the same call at the same time is a nightmare.
Nirbion: Would you like to release Astalon games on consoles in the future or would you rather focus newer games and not port every old game you worked on?
Matt: Uh, well. It’s hard to say about older games, I would always want to put them on a console; I think it’s very important.
Even for me, [it would] bring joy to my heart, to play my games on a Nintendo system for instance. But that’s the cool thing: We made a deal with DANGEN, they’re going to be publishing Astalon and, although I can’t officially announce console ports, that’s something that is in the plan. Working with a team like DANGEN make it a very easy possibility. There’s going to be more news about that stuff in the near future.
Nirbion: You mentioned your first game Castle in the Darkness before. Would you like to port it if you have the opportunity to port it to the Unity engine or is that right now a very low priority for you?
Matt: Oh, are you spying on me at home?
Nirbion: I wasn’t expecting that. (laughs)
Matt: No, no, no. I’m joking. It’s not a priority at the moment. But I’d love to do it, I’d love to see the game running on consoles and a Unity version would certainly make it easier to add to the game, I’d make it slightly expanded. But if any of your readers want to see Castle in the Darkness on console hit me up! I want to know if there’s a serious demand for it. Working with a Unity programmer now… It’s plausible I think. It would be cool, I’d like to do that eventually.
Nirbion: About it depending. Does that also count for Astalon? If Switch fans want the game on the Switch is it also important for fans to voice their demand?
Matt: Uh, I’d say it’s less important for Astalon.
Matt: But definitely, we want to know which consoles people want to see the game on and we’ll prioritize those if we’re gonna do any ports.
Nirbion: You founded your own companyLABS recently. What lead you to the decision to found your own company?
Matt: Well, as an artist, it’s a lot harder to work on other peoples games or projects that aren’t your own projects.
PushDustIn: You want to express your creativity.
Matt: Of course. I have a lot of ideas but there’s not enough time in the day for me to realize all of them. I figured that if I work with a small group of people that I can trust, that I know is on the same page as me and want to work on stuff together, that it could work out a lot better for the games. The games would just be higher quality, we’d get them done faster and they would just be better in general. And yeah. That was it: I just put it out there, started a team and then I got some emails and just going from there. One step at a time. I’m a musician as well, so my work now consists of being a musician and game development, which are the best two things in my life and I want to focus ALL my energy into those two things and this was a good way to do it.
Nirbion: You also have a lot of benefits in working inside your own company. But how difficult is it to balance companies work or your own work in the indie development scene and your daily job?
Matt: So… I’m doing a panel about this actually.
Matt: In a nutshell, it can be super difficult. There are some things that can’t be avoided. For instance: I play in a band called MUTE and we tour internationally pretty much twice a year. When there’s a tour, I could be gone for a month which means that if there’s any game development stuff, I can’t do it, right? Planning around that is difficult and [it was] the same thing for this [Bitsummit].
My other band at home right now, we’re working on an album… But I’m in Japan for a week. So the rest of the band is missing the guy that knows how to record. But I don’t think that I would change it. I’m more happy doing these two things back and forth than any other combination of full time or part time work with this stuff on top of that. You get really tired at work. Also after work, try to be creative… You know… It’s tough.
I don’t have to deal with that fortunately, I can just focus on being creative all the time.
Nirbion: About expressing your own creativity as your own individual, there are also veterans of the gaming industry leaving their company, for example,Square Enix with Sakaguchi and there’s a recent trend of veterans forming their own small studio and creating smaller titles. Can you explain why especially veterans from the gaming industry decide to leave their high position job and decide to concentrate on smaller projects?
Matt: What I think it is, just a bigger version of exactly what I said earlier. They work for big companies, they might get paid well, they might not, maybe it doesn’t make sense. But that’s one thing. If you’re an indie developer and you make a game by yourself, you see the profits, they come straight to you. If you work for a big company, you work your ass off for an idea that, could come from someone else that you may not connect with at all and not get paid that well for it. And all throughout be thinking about games that you actually want to make.
PushDustIn: Yeah. your passion.
Matt: Right, exactly. I think that’s what just forces some of these guys to leave. They have an idea, they can’t make it at work and they’re not going to make it on the side, especially if they’re well known. Not me really (laughs), but someone like Keiji Inafune: he had that star power to make Mighty No. 9. Something that people were watching. He was able to make what he wanted to make and it worked out…. Kind of.
Nirbion: Alright! Our last question. What does being indie means to you?
Matt: I think being indie- the one word I can think of is “freedom”. Freedom to do anything you want with your games and not really worry about sales numbers or corporate stuff. I believe that if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing, the [good] sales will come.
Maybe it will take some time for you to get good at your craft. Takes several years, I wasn’t born pixel drawing and even now, I don’t think I’m that great. I see others works and it just inspires me to try harder and do better next time. You have to stick to it but having the freedom to do what you actually love to do and want to do is very very important and very very indie.
Nirbion: Awesome, nice answer! Thank you for taking your time!
PushDustIn: Thank you so much!
Matt: No problem guys!