Ville and Anne Mönkkönen on Driftmoon, Steam, and developing together
Driftmoon is a game in development for well over half a decade. It initially released back in the crazy days of 2013 – when the world was a different place. With the move to 2014, Driftmoon recently debuted on Steam, bringing the game to an even wider audience than before. We thought this would be the perfect opportunity to chat to the husband and wife development team behind the game – Ville and Anne Mönkkönen – about their work on it over the past few years.
In our interview we hit on many diverse subjects. We (obviously) talk about the world of Driftmoon. We discover many, many great games are made in Finland. We wonder how you can find time to make a game with the niggling little things that is real life getting in the way. Then we ponder self-marketing games, and wonder why a monster needs a cookbook, before realizing Doom is very scary. We even find time to discuss psychology!
Ville Mönkkönen: Hi, I’m Ville Mönkkönen, and I run the indie game studio Instant Kingdom. I’ve been making indie games nonstop for fifteen years now, though back in the day we didn’t call them indie games yet. The story of Driftmoon is that in 2005 me and one of my friends started making a massively multiplayer platformer roleplaying game with what is known today as crafting and fully deformable world, and puzzles. Eventually I had to scale down the plan a bit, in fact I completely scrapped it, and turned the engine into a single player RPG. When Anne joined me in the development, we named it Driftmoon. But at first we didn’t really have any idea of what the game was about. We just had the desire to try and create something that would at times come close to the feeling we had as children, opening Christmas presents, anxious to see the fun things waiting inside the wrapping papers.
Anne Mönkkönen: And I’m Anne, the co-developer of Driftmoon, and I also happen to be Ville’s wife. We met at University in 2006, when Ville had already started on the engine that was to become Driftmoon. Some months later Ville’s friend Quanrian went on to his own studies, and Ville decided to continue the game project on his own – only he didn’t get to do it on his own for too long, because I wanted to find out what on earth he was working on each and every day after work. So, I hopped on board the Driftmoon train (a fine old-fashioned Steam Engine), started with taking photos for Driftmoon, and over the years ended up doing everything except programming alongside with Ville.
Ville: Well, I have to admit that meeting my future wife had something to do with my game development having stalled at the time.
DZ: Finland seems to be a hotbed for successful game developers right now. Rovio (Angry Birds), Frozenbyte (Trine), RedLynx (Trials), Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake), Housemarque (Resogun), and The Swapper (Facepalm Games), all have origins in the country. Is it exciting to be part of a country with such a thriving gaming community?
Ville: It’s fantastic! Now I only wish we could find the time to meet all these guys even once. I bet they’re not fully enjoying their fantastic community without us. Seriously though, I think Finland’s game development hotbed status is due to a very appreciated indie game culture back in the nineties. I still remember reading each month in MikroBitti magazine about all the great new shareware games that had been released, and desperately wanting to be on that list.
Anne: It’s always nice to hear other game developers succeeding. Making games is not a very secure field, in that it’s quite difficult to estimate whether you can make a living out of it. We’ve been happy to see these success stories, and have also been thrilled with the way our players have welcomed Driftmoon.
DZ: Even though the games listed above are developed in Finland – there is not much on show in the games themselves that hint they’ve originated from that country. Although Driftmoon is a fictional world, there does seem to be small hints of its Finnish origin on show. Was this a plan all along, or just the fact both of you are drawing from influences close to home?
Ville: You mean the character I forgot to translate? The one who speaks Finnish? Nah, I left him there intentionally. Other than that, I don’t recall any particular notion of Finnishness, so anything else must have just come there by surprise. If it’s something funny, Anne must have added it, and not told me.
Anne: I think you might be forgetting the sauna – that’s certainly one aspect of Finnish culture that’s visible in Driftmoon. And since many things in Driftmoon reflect our hearts and souls, it’s bound to reflect some small parts of our home country.
DZ: Whilst two person teams are not wholly unique nowadays, they are still an anomaly in game development. Having a limited team no doubt means more work for the people involved, but what do you think are the more positive effects of having a close-knit team?
Ville: Obviously, the bigger a team is, the more effort is spent to managing the team and keeping up morale, and with only two persons that is much easier. And we can talk about new ideas for development when we’re doing groceries for example. Since Anne is not a hired developer, she’s much better motivated in working on Driftmoon, it’s her game as well as mine. I think owning the end result brings out the best work from everyone, for example if you’re a construction worker working on your own house, you’re much more likely to do a good job of it. And that’s exactly what we’ve wanted to do with Driftmoon, it’s our game, and when you play it, you take a look at what’s going on in our own minds. Compared to a multi-million dollar game company, we haven’t had to leave too many of our fun personal touches out to please the collective mind.
Anne: Having two people in the team is also very different from one: It brings another perspective into every choice. For example the dialogues are – almost without exception – all written by both of us, so that if I made the first draft, then Ville read it next, making it better along the way.
DZ: Driftmoon feels very much like a joint effort, but were there any aspects of the game you disagreed on during development? Was there something that did, or did not, make it to the final game (a character, storyline or other feature) that both of you did not jointly agree on?
Anne: There is that strange monster I wanted to place on the Desert Dessert, who’d lost his cook book. Ville didn’t warm up to him for some reason.
Ville: Honestly, I could never figure out what that monster was supposed to be about. And the Bogeyman was one that Anne completely rewrote once because I wasn’t so enthusiastic about how it was done at first. But I think we didn’t have anything big cut from the game because of a disagreement. More often than not we were just improving on each other’s ideas.
DZ: Driftmoon has been out quite a while on other digital services, but you went through Greenlight to get added to Steam. Did you enjoy the social aspect of this service, and would you use other social avenues – like Kickstarter or IndieGogo – for financial backing on any future games?
Ville: Mainly the social part of Greenlight was existing players recommending the game to others, and people commenting on the game’s visuals. A lot of people saw Driftmoon there and became interested in it. We’re certainly going to see about Kickstarter and IndieGogo for the future, now that we have a healthy amount of fans, there are a lot of people eager to see what’s next. At least that’s what we’ve been told by a lot of people, who have demanded more games from us.
DZ: Successful marketing seems to be one of the biggest hassles facing most indie developers – regardless of the quality of their product. Has it been difficult to get word about Driftmoon out to the masses? Even though you have only been on Steam a few weeks do you think it’s already helped expose the game to even more people?
Ville: It’s true, we’ve had to work very hard to get noticed among all the other games. Fortunately when we get a reviewer to finally try the game, more often than not we hear that they couldn’t put the game down until they had finished it. In that way Driftmoon is a bit easier to market than many other games might be, there’s a good amount of word of mouth marketing going on, which we’re very glad about. Steam has brought us a very nice boost, I don’t know the full figures yet. Steam seems to be a sort of unofficial standard platform for many players, so some will refuse to buy a game that’s not on Steam, because they want to keep all of their library on one platform.
Anne: One challenge with marketing is also the fact that neither of us really enjoys it. When I have the time, I really like talking to our players, and responding to their feedback, but it’s extremely hard for me to motivate myself to anything that smells of marketing.
Ville: Our next game will market itself completely, I just post it somewhere, and off it goes. The description alone will be so interesting, that you’re practically forced to play the game!
DZ: I believe Driftmoon is now being ported to Unity to then port it to tablet platforms. Even though you’ve worked on various versions of the game for well over half a decade now, do you think work will ever be truly done? Do you envision it ever expanding past PC and tablet platforms? Sony seem quite receptive to studios such as yours at the moment!
Ville: We are looking at publishing to consoles as well, but it will require considerable changes to the controls, so we’re not quite serious about that yet. This is my eighth year working on the same codebase, and I must admit that it’s going to be hard to let go of it. But our Unity port will be the last work we do with Driftmoon 1, then we’re on to new secret projects! Financially it would make a lot of sense to make a Driftmoon 2, we’ve had so many requests for continuation of the story. But before focusing on that, I think I’m eager to work on something completely different for a change.
DZ: When I was looking over your website, I notice Anne had a Psychology background, and whilst playing Driftmoon, I noticed it had a hearty positive message for players. Did having such a background have an effect on the direction of the game’s content and story?
Anne: I do think it has had some effect. First of all, Ville and I put quite a lot of thought into the different characters in the game. We aimed to give them depth, distinct personalities, and histories. Driftmoon is also not all cheery and funny, rather it’s a game of many moods: At times it dives quite deep, but it is never left to linger there for too long. My number one goal in developing Driftmoon, has been to make it a game that might brighten up its player’s day, at least a tiny bit. Who knows, maybe Driftmoon will exceed the use of antidepressants some day, and become the number one cure for depression.
DZ: Continuing the above question. In psychological terms do you think games can help/hinder people’s mindset with their content. Many people praise Driftmoon for its humorous, upbeat nature – commenting that it is a “feel-good game.” If someone plays a game with a darker, more menacing tone do you think the opposite could prove true?
Anne: Certainly. What we do and experience in the world clearly has an effect on how we feel, even though our expectations, motivations, previous experiences and the way we interpret the world around us also playes a significant part in this process. This also means that the way two different people experience something is never exactly the same, even though there often are many similarities. And talking about games altering your mood, I remember some of the feedback messages we’ve received mentioning that they’d played a very grim game before Driftmoon, and felt like our little adventure helped them drag themselves back up from the gutter.
DZ: Having full-time jobs, raising children, and choosing to develop a game seems like a lot of work to have on your hands simultaneously. How do you find time to relax amid what must feel like three separate jobs? Most people can barely cope with the chaos of just one of those things at one time!
Ville: I get to relax a bit when I cycle to work, I usually listen to a good book on the way. In truth, these last few years we’ve only ever managed to relax a bit when the kids go to sleep at nine or ten in the evening. Then we just fall on the couch to watch some episode of Poirot, or one of the awesome BBC nature documentaries. Fortunately working on Driftmoon still feels like a hobby to me, the most stressful part was when we finally managed to set a release date for the game, and we had to work days and nights to get it completed.
Anne: It’s been an interesting journey and I’ve learned a whole lot, but it definitely hasn’t been a piece of cake. The children are our top priority, so we’ve mostly taken turns working on Driftmoon. It’s been a big blessing that we’ve been able to share the project together, because when one of us has been feeling too exhausted with it, the other has taken on more responsibility. Also, since I was at home taking care of the kids for almost 4 years during development, making Driftmoon was a nice channel for me to do something different, and use my brains for something other than being a mom. Not that being a mom is a brainless job, far from it…
Ville: Time-wise, we could have made some easier choises when making the game, but there were some things we wanted to hold onto. It would have taken much less working hours to make the game an action RPG with focus on combat (and make the combat harder and somewhat different than in the current Driftmoon), but we chose to go the hard way, and create an adventure RPG, focusing on adventure, exploration, and the story and characters of the game. That meant we had a bookful of dialogues and background stories to write, and all sorts of surprises to hide in every nook and cranny… An interesting job, but also extremely time-consuming.
DZ: I believe neither of you had met when Driftmoon first began development – let alone had children. Do you think current life circumstances could alter the type of games you’d create in the future? For example, after having kids many creators (particularly of books and film) seem more willing to make content their children may enjoy. Could you see yourselves following this same route?
Ville: I don’t think our children affected the game too much. I tried to work on the more exciting and scarier graphics mostly when they’d gone to sleep, and of course, the bird’s eye viewpoint of Driftmoon made the game seem a lot less scary for them than a first person view would have. I actually make educational games for kids at my day job, so I don’t have the slightest inclination to work on anything similar in my spare time.
Anne: I don’t think we’d ever like to create a game that we though might be harmful to children – but then again, I think we felt that way even before we had kids of our own.
Ville: And I really think parents should respect the age guidelines in games. There’s no harm in using common sense of course, but for some reason I remember playing Doom 1 when I was 10, and I had nightmares for weeks.
DZ: Following on from that, do you see yourselves limiting your children’s access to games as they grow up. Do they interact with games in any way already? And if you chose to introduce them to games in the future what titles or genres do you think would be best suited?
Ville: We’ve let them play with an Android tablet. We have rigid parental controls on it to only allow specific apps. So far they’re of an age that they like simple puzzles and memory games, but in the future I hope to introduce them first to adventure gaming and then strategy games. But more than that, I’m eager to start them off developing their own games!
Anne: And with Ville to lead the way, we’ll have two new coding wonders in no time at all! Seriously though, I think we’ll keep a pretty close eye in the games they play, even after they grow up a little. They’re now 3 and 5, and right now still quite happy with those little puzzle games, and cute storybook adventures.
Ville: I will be letting our kids play Driftmoon when they reach twenty. I guess I’ll have to preserve a PC for them to play it with.
DZ: In similar vein, did both of you actively play games growing up. Looking back, do you think you’ve experienced similar games as you grew – or did you have totally different tastes? Do you still have time to game now, and is there much co-op gaming in the Mönkkönen household nowadays?
Ville: These days we usually play together just to quickly check out new games, have to keep up with the industry. We’ve had a cooperative game of Heroes of Might and Magic 3 going on for four years now, maybe we chose too large a map for the few minutes we have time for it twice a year. After that I think we’re going to start playing Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. We’re both big fans of adventure games, even though I’ve gone through just about every genre there is, and thousands of games. In addition to good adventure titles, my favorites are some clever strategy games, or classic RPGs like Ultima VII.
Anne: I’ve played quite a lot as well, growing up with two brothers. When we were young kids, we had hundreds of games on our old Amiga, after that my favorites have generally been in adventure, RPG, and strategy games (e.g. The Monkey Islands, and the Civilization series, The Longest Journey, and the afore-mentioned HoMM III).
Thank you both for your time. Is there a note or a closure that you would like to end this interview on?
Ville: Get our newsletter, and rest assured in the knowledge that you’ll know when our next game comes out! (link below)
Anne: There’s a long, free demo of Driftmoon on our website www.instantkindgom.com. Most of you reading this are probably already downloading it, right? If you want to, you’re welcome to send us feedback directly through the game, by pressing the letter F. We’ve been getting zillions of wonderful feedback messages from our players, and I do my best to answer most of them.