Here at Black Shell Media, we find ourselves extremely lucky to build relationships with a wide array of developers from different backgrounds. Each and every one of our developer friends took very different routes to end up where they are today, published and professional. This interview series gives you a peek behind the curtains into the everyday lives of some of our best development partners, both in-house and out, and highlights exactly what it took to turn them into the game developers they are today.
This week, we’re talking to Michele Pirovano, the sole developer behind Curiosity Killed the Cat, the studio responsible for the rouge-like village sim .Age (pronounced Dot Age), where you take command as village elder and guide your people through the Dark Ages.
Black Shell Media: How long have you been developing games personally and where did it start?
Michele Pirovano: I seriously started developing videogames as a hobby in 2010 during my computer science studies, following the Video Game Design and Programming university course at Politecnico di Milano, the Polytechnic School of Milan. Video games have always been my passion, but I had never considered them as a job, as the concept sounded too farfetched at the time due to Italy’s very small video game industry and since I had no plans to move abroad.
However, when I realized I could actually make games, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life! 🙂
To tell the whole truth, it all started way before, with a very little me drawing levels for Super Mario World, drawing new factions for Heroes of Might and Magic II, and fiddling with some unknown old game-making software in the late 90s.
BSM: How did you come up with your studio name?
MP: Being a lone developer, I created Curiosity Killed the Cat as an official label for games I make either alone or, sometimes, with friends. I mostly chose the name because I really (really!) love cats and wanted both my logo and my studio name to have cats in them. The logo, if it’s not clear, is a small cat inside a bucket.
Apart from that, I like that old saying, because it shows my way of thinking: being extremely curious about everything and having a passion for learning itself. I also really like the fact that the saying is incomplete and that the rest recites, “but the truth brought it back.” It gives the saying a weird feeling, since it sounds negative if you ignore that there is more to it, which is exactly what the complete saying is about! I find it very powerful.
However, I am thinking of changing it for a shorter one, one which cannot be mistaken for an old rock band and is easier to find on Google. 😉
I’ve got a few ideas but I need to work on them a little more, so .Age will come out as a CKC-branded game.
BSM: How many people are on your core development team (including contractors), and how did your team get assembled?
MP: As I said, I am a lone developer, but I also like to work with other professionals when given the chance. The core team for .Age is thus just me and Luigi di Guida. I take care of the design, programming, and graphics of the game. This is because I like to fiddle with all aspects of game development. It’s a pet project of mine, .Age, and I wanted to try making my own art, so I decided to learn pixel art. I also had many ideas for the village sim genre and thus wanted to design its mechanics and UI by myself.
Luigi produces the music . . . or should I say re-produces? All songs are real medieval tracks! Luigi and I met on an Italian game development hub several years ago, doing jams and discussing development with many talented people. When I noticed during a game dev contest that he was one of the most talented composers around, I couldn’t let him go and asked him to make all the music for .Age, to which he agreed immediately.
BSM: What is your educational background? Did any of your studies directly help you in becoming a game developer?
MP: I am an information and automation engineer and I have a PhD in computer science. I spent a lot of years in the University, which gave me the opportunity to improve my knowledge on several topics significantly, while allowing me to also learn to code and design games by participating in jams, creating small projects, and following PhD courses on game-related topics.
I steered my academic path toward game development in an attempt to hit two birds with one stone, from artificial intelligence, to 3D mesh reconstruction, cloud gaming, procedural content generation, and serious games. My master’s thesis was on real-time fluid dynamics simulation and my PhD thesis on physical rehabilitation games for the elderly. All of this allowed me to complete my PhD studies while obtaining a good understanding of many game-related topics.
I would say my studies helped with my career as I now teach game programming and work as a freelance game developer, having specialized in artificial intelligence and procedural content generation and thus have been able to find my own development niche.
BSM: What made you interested in working on projects in this genre?
MP: .Age is half village sim and half rogue-like, so I must give two answers to this question.
From the village sim side, I always wanted to give a try at creating my own The Settlers. That game has been one of my favorites since I was 5 years old. I still remember trying to understand how to play it without even being able to read! I remember watching the villagers live peacefully for hours. I don’t think I ever finished the game, but it felt so peaceful just to watch! I wanted to recreate that same feeling, and I also wanted to try new ideas to change the mechanics a bit (in fact, you will find .Age to be quite different).
The rogue-like side, well, that’s a more recent taste. I love the challenge and tension that rogue-likes provide, and I also like the variety achieved through randomization, which gives them unprecedented replayability, just like many board games have. Lately, I especially liked how some games managed to match very different genres to the rogue-like feeling of “impending doom,” like FTL did (which is one of the main inspirations for .Age). I wanted to see if I could fit the rogue-like concepts inside a peaceful village sim, and here I am!
BSM: Why did you decide to take on a project of this particular scope and scale?
MP: .Age is a pet project of mine, done with zero funding, so I could not fully devote myself to it. I wanted this to remain mainly a one-man effort so that I could work without having others depending on my availability. My indie dev time is limited by my full-time work (and life itself), but I try to squeeze as much time as possible out of the busy life whenever I can.
I started with other quite ambitious projects in the past, such as a big musical 3D puzzle game or a weird, fuzzy logic-inspired asynchronous strategy game. My inexperience with game development and the time needed to complete these were big problems and thus doomed them, but they also taught me how to properly scope the next projects (and also my freelance work).
So I decided to focus on something more manageable, something I could actually finish. I spent a lot of effort in keeping the game simple, placing large constraints such as a a fixed screen, single-click interaction, 2D pixel art, and as little text as possible. Little did I know that several of those constraints would make the journey harder (and yet so satisfying)! In any case, a little feature creep still managed to creep in. 🙂
.Age is slowly becoming one of these games that look simple but hide great depth, and I love it!
BSM: Given that games can change quite a bit throughout development, what did your game look like early in its development cycle?
MP: Being in development for more than two years, the game changed a lot!
When I started, I had never drawn anything, and I spent a lot of time learning pixel art. The artistic style changed a lot from the beginning as I improved, so the resolution of buildings went through different phases: they started as 8×8 pixel sprites and are now 64×64 (and 128 too for some big ones). Also, since I could be very flexible with the design, I kept refining mechanics and adding features while developing, so that the initial version is a forgotten memory.
In addition to all of this, the very first version of .Age was actually a game called Pipo I created more than 6 years ago first using Flash in 2D, then Unity in 3D. Needless to say, that one was too big and I realized I needed to make things simpler.
BSM: Describe a typical day of game development for you. What is it like?
MP: Nothing fancy really. My days are pretty similar to each other: I wake up, make coffee, then develop the day away until it’s dark (or I need more coffee). Sometimes I go to Milan to teach or have Skype calls for work, but otherwise I’ll stay in my room-office, making games all day long. To keep things interesting, during the day, I like to switch from coding to design or to pixel-drawing, to change the pace a bit. There are so many things to learn on so many topics, I never feel bored!
BSM: What were some challenges you had to overcome in the development process?
MP: Since I am working alone and decided on not having deadlines, motivation to finish everything can be a challenge. Between work and life, there are always more pressing matters to attend to, and finding the time for making my game move along nicely is hard. Also, the hiccups in the development: months passing between two days of work on the project make it hard to resume working. However, I’ve scrapped enough half-finished games and am tired of starting again, so I always come back to .Age!
Learning pixel art was a big challenge as I erroneously thought it would be way easier. I learned many concepts on colors and art, which, coming from a technical background, were eye-openers. The same can be said for UI design, which I greatly underestimated.
BSM: What are some of your favorite parts of game development?
MP: There are many! Some of my personal favorites are the thrill you feel when players are caught off-guard by your game, when they feel surprised by what happens in a fun way. It feels really satisfying to watch as you make people smile and laugh!
Another is the pleasure of finishing features and adding the last touches, as the last bits of polishing feel really good. I love making lists (yes, lists!). Lists of buildings, resources, creatures, and so on. I like trying to add a lot of content while making sure it makes sense.
And last but not least, I love the challenge of problem solving and creating complex algorithms that can surprise the developer themselves, and that’s why I specialized in the topics of artificial intelligence and procedural content generation.
BSM: What’s next on the horizon for you both personally and professionally?
MP: I am currently very satisfied with how things are going both personally and professionally.
I love being able to work alone at my own pacing and being my own boss, so the freelance path has been great thus far and I would love to keep doing what I do. Work has been great and I’m looking forward to increasing my offers, probably even getting some collaborators to handle bigger jobs!
Regarding my indie-dev life, well, I’m squeezing every minute I can get out of my free time to finish .Age and then, let’s just say . . . I have a long list of half-made game design documents from which I’ll pick my next project.
After that, I will of course keep making games!