Developer Interview: Elysian Shadows' Falco Girgis

Elysian Shadows Team hit the gaming headlines in the summer of 2014 when their eponymous indie RPG Elysian Shadows made it's Kickstarter goal in a matter of weeks. Since then, Elysian Shadows Team have been a constant fixture in the gaming press due to the open and entertaining nature in which lead programmer Falco Girgis and his colleagues have kept us involved in the development process via blogs and the popular YouTube series Adventures in Game Development. Often outspoken yet never dull, Falco very kindly agreed to speak openly to The Dreamcast Junkyard and tell us a little bit more about the rest of the development team, the history of his project, his impression of other upcoming indie games, and just how Elysian Shadows has quickly become one of the Dreamcast's most eagerly awaited games...

DCJY: Could you give a little bit of background on the Elysian Shadows team – who you are and what your roles are in developing Elysian Shadows?

Falco Girgis: Right now we’re just four dudes from different countries who work together every day in our underwear via Skype, haha! Falco Girgis and Tyler Rogers are the resident rednecks, from Alabama. Falco is the one behind the fancy tech like the lights and physics. He’s the engine and toolkit developer and the resident graphics guru. Tyler Rogers marries Falco’s tech with the pixel art and audio to achieve the creative vision we’re aiming for through his Lua scripting. He’s focused more on the gameplay experience while Falco is focusing more on the technology powering the game. Patrick Kowalik and Daniel Tindall are our pixel artist and our level designer respectively. Patrick lives in Poland and Dan lives in Britain. We met both of them through our YouTube series, “Adventures in Game Development.” They both messaged us looking to join our cause.

A lot of people may not know what Elysian Shadows (the game) is – if you had to sell it to somebody who was totally new to the title, how would you describe it?

Elysian Shadows is our attempt at reinventing the old school 2D RPG genre for the next generation of gamers and hardware. It’s about fusing aspects of our favorite 16-bit RPGs like Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy with modern lighting techniques, 3D positional audio, 3D perspectives, particle physics, and modern gameplay. It’s the ultimate marriage of old and new for us. We want to create something nostalgic and familiar feeling while also bringing something completely new and exciting to the genre, hopefully appealing to newer and older gamers alike.
Elysian Shadows features advanced lighting and day/night effects

Elysian Shadows is coming to a number of different platforms including the Ouya. We have to ask – what prompted you to want to also bring the game to Dreamcast?

I guess most people probably don’t know this… But Elysian Shadows was ALWAYS for the Dreamcast since day 1. It even began as a Dreamcast EXCLUSIVE! I (Falco Girgis) became involved in the Dreamcast scene back in 2004, when I stumbled upon I was only 14 back then, and I was absolutely blown away by the fact that I could run emulators and home-brew on my Dreamcast with zero modification. I was even more impressed that there was a group of crazy motherfuckers who were reverse engineering the Dreamcast and developing their own indie games for the platform.

Back in 2004, there was no Xbox Live Arcade, Indie Marketplace, App Store, or any of that. Console and mobile development was reserved exclusively for huge companies, completely beyond the reach of a kid like me. The Dreamcast completely changed that. Suddenly I could make console games in my bedroom. I viewed the Dreamcast developers as god-like figures in my mind… I was inspired to ride my bike to the local library and teach myself C just to develop for the platform.

The first polygon I ever rendered was on the Dreamcast. I grew up developing for it. If it weren’t for the Dreamcast, I would never have become a computer engineer or half the developer I am today. It was always my dream to release a game for the console, and even if Elysian Shadows has changed drastically from our original vision, I’ve always held onto that dream and have always insisted on maintaining a Dreamcast build. It has become a personal quest for me to give back to the console that was so capable, gave me so much, and died so young.

Elysian Shadows looks to take many visual cues from 16-bit RPGs but also updates them with some fantastic 3D effects and lighting. Which games from previous gaming generations have been the biggest influences on your game?

That’s actually nowhere near as straightforward to answer as you would imagine, haha! We have taken obvious queues from the 16-bit classics like Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger, Shining Force, Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, and Dragon Quest, but we have also been highly influenced by many games, some of which aren’t even RPGs. We’ve incorporated platforming elements from games like Super Mario and some of the characters’ moves were inspired by the Megaman X series. Our dungeons were inspired by the Zelda series and the Megaman Legends series.

During development we even found ourselves drawing inspiration from survival horror games like Resident Evil once we realized the potential our dynamic lighting engine gives us to create emotionally tense moods. Everyone on our team comes from a different gaming background, bringing different inspirations and influences to the table with ES. I think it makes the game very unique and will hopefully allow us to appeal to a wider audience than just the traditional 2D JRPG fans.
Environments are extremely varied

The recent trend for indie titles on the Dreamcast has been to release 2D shooters (known affectionately as shmups). Do you think that the Dreamcast scene is ready to embrace a new genre of independently-developed game?

I think everyone on our team is more than ready to see new types of games on the Dreamcast. I was so happy to see our publisher, Watermelon, bring Pier Solar to the Dreamcast. I really feel like that’s ushering a new wave of diversity for the platform. We are also releasing our own SDK for the Dreamcast, allowing indie developers to create their own “next-gen” 2D-style games. These tools are extremely powerful and will hopefully be opening the platform to new developers who would have otherwise passed the Dreamcast by.

On the subject of your publisher, could you talk about your partnership with Watermelon for the Dreamcast release? Did you approach them or was it the other way round?

It was actually the other way around. They approached us, and we happened to both be mutual admirers of each others’ work. Since Watermelon had to invest so much money into creating the infrastructure to create and publish pressed Dreamcast discs, cases, and instruction manuals, it only made sense that we publish through them for both of us. They get a return on their investment, and we save money.

Honestly our involvement with them goes deeper than just creating physical goods, though. Watermelon’s president, Tulio, is a really great guy who drove halfway across the country to hang out with us and coach us on how to prepare for our Kickstarter. He has been a mentor and good friend to us, and we can’t tell you how grateful we are to Watermelon. There is way too much competition and bitterness in this whole indie game development scene, especially once you become successfully crowdfunded. To see such a successful studio selflessly offer support and respect to a smaller team like us is nothing short of humbling. They could have just as easily decided Elysian Shadows and Pier Solar were competing Dreamcast RPGs and blown us off.

Does working with Watermelon games lower the cost at all or is it simply less of a hassle to have a third party help out with this process?

Oh, it would definitely lower the cost for everyone here. A significant amount of money from our crowd funding campaign would have needed to go into the R&D required to develop a physical Dreamcast release. We would have had to sell them for more money just to fund the project, and we also would have had to take funds away from other areas of the game like music to do so.

What are your impressions of other soon-to-be-released indie games such as SLaVE, AMEBA and Hypertension?

While I would definitely not say our team is on good terms with Isotope anymore, we would never let this affect our judgement of their products or our respect for their work. We are all fans of Hypertension and especially SLaVE, which I think is an extremely sexy, unique take on the genre. I was super impressed as soon as I saw it and messaged Corbin immediately to tell her how cool I thought it was.

I actually feel pretty bad about my initial Facebook reaction to Retro SumusAMEBA, as I said something along the lines of doubting the game would ever materialize since there was so little info or content given, and nothing was in-game. I was later contacted by one of the developers who happened to be a fan of ours, explaining how disappointed he was with my post…

We’ve talked quite a bit since, and my mind has been completely changed regarding AMEBA. I think it’s a game we should all be excited for, based on the passion and determination of the team. Those are some really cool guys with some really cool ideas… Even if we’re friends now, I still feel a tinge of guilt for that initial post. Elysian Shadows loves AMEBA. SORRY FOR BEING A DICK! :)
Interior locales feature a pseudo-3D effect

You've been very open so far about the Elysian Shadows development process, regularly updating your development blog and explaining how certain aspects of programming work. I’m way too stupid to understand much of what you blog, but is the intention here to share knowledge and allow other developers to use your practices?

Honestly sometimes I don’t even know. We’ve been doing Adventures in Game Development for so long now that I think our motivations for continuing have changed several times. Part of it is definitely raising awareness for our product, Elysian Shadows, but part of it is really just sharing the fun we have as a bunch of dudes locked in a room for days with too much caffeine and a passion for game development with the rest of the world…

Adventures in Game Development is undoubtedly the only reason we were able to get crowd funded and is the reason we’re even half as popular as we are now. We’ve made friends and relationships through the series that would have otherwise never been possible. I get messages constantly from people telling me we’ve either inspired them to become computer scientists or indie game developers…

We just know that it’s a good, pure thing that we like doing, so we’re going to keep doing it.

Eysian Shadows has a very distinct pixel-art style. Games like Fez and Hotline Miami have used this style to great effect too, but do you feel they may have stolen a little bit of Elysian Shadows’ thunder by coming out first?

Actually no, not at all. The only thing we really have in common with them is the fact we’re using pixel art. The style of the pixel art isn’t even similar, and that is only one small component of our graphics. ES uses dynamic lighting, bump mapping, specular highlights, pixel-perfect shadows, and even a 3D perspective that none of these games had ever explored. I would rather believe these games have prepared the world for Elysian Shadows by reintroducing them to the pixel art style.

And on the subject of Fez and Hotline Miami, what are the chances of Elysian Shadows coming to current platforms like the Vita, PS4, Wii U or Xbox One?

The chances are extremely high. As a computer engineer, I port Elysian Shadows to different platforms just for fun (yeah, I’m that nerdy). We have a 6 month exclusivity deal with Ouya for their “Free the Games Fund” (Dreamcast not included, don’t worry), but once this period is over, you better believe we’ll be coming to every platform we can get our hands on. Prepare your Sega 32xs and Virtual Boys. ;)

Moving away from Elysian Shadows for a moment, as a Dreamcast community we're interested to know if you were you a big Dreamcast fan while the machine was contemporary?

ABSOLUTELY. During that entire console generation, even after the Dreamcast’s discontinuation, I still played the Dreamcast almost exclusively. I even purchased a PS2, but after seeing how much better Resident Evil: Code Veronica was on the Dreamcast, it basically became neglected.

Does the continued popularity of the Dreamcast surprise you?

No, it honestly doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m actually expecting it to become more popular as time goes on and more developers see how successful games like Elysian Shadows and Pier Solar are on the platform. It’s a very capable little console with a bunch of really cool peripherals to play with. It also doesn’t require any hardware modifications to run homebrew… It’s still an indie developer’s dream.

Do you have any favourite Dreamcast games?

Sonic Adventure 1+2, Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2.0, Shenmue 1+2, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, Jet Grind Radio, Rez, and SAMBA DE AMIGO. Oh my god, I used to be so Samba De Amigo obsessed… You have no idea how good I got at shaking them maracas.

Lastly, with the recent news of Sega's radical downsizing, there's almost no chance of us getting a Shenmue III now, but we're curious - do you think Shenmue was really as good as everyone says? Or was it more a matter of style over substance in your opinion?

I freaking loved Shenmue, haha! I think a lot of the ADHD gamers who want something fast-paced and dumbed down hated it, but for those of us who like substance, story, and immersion in our games, it was amazing… I can still remember pissing my pants when I found the Yu Arcade and could play Genesis games IN-GAME.
Elysian Shadows is pencilled in for a late 2015 release on Dreamcast, and is also coming to various other platforms including the Ouya, PC and Mac. The Dreamcast release is being published by Watermelon and you can secure a copy by visiting the official Elysian Shadows website. You can also follow the development and have your mind baffled by Falco's technical jargon by checking out the brilliant YouTube series Adventures in Game Development, and also be sure to follow/stalk Elysian Shadows and Falco on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest, Google+ and Instagram for regular updates.

Finally, I would like to thank Falco for taking the time to answer our questions and being a good sport all round.


Robert Jones said...

Bomb dropped! Falco comes out fighting for Shenmue!

Also, excellent interview Tom. Really interesting read. Really looking forward to Shadows now.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments guys, and again thanks to Falco and Elysian Shadows Team for allowing us to get this article made. I'm very much looking forward to the game myself too :)

Charlton said...

i was wondering what version of code veronica is better. Falco's comment helped a lot! bought a copy of E.S. and I'm looking forward to it!