Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers

Cape Cosmic, the developer behind Phoenotopia!

A while back we  were happy to review Phoenotopia: Awakening for indie developer Cape Cosmic. An adventure RPG game in 2D pixel packed full of puzzles and adventure. A pleasant surprise, as Emily gave it a high rating. As you can see in her review (find it here) she said in her conclusion:

There is a lot to this game that is guaranteed to keep you entertained and pushing forward in the story, especially at its price point. Keep your eyes peeled for this game, because Phoenotopia: Awakening is not a game you want to miss!

With starting our Patreon Page we decided that we would add more content to LadiesGamers in the form of indie developer interviews, especially for our Patrons.

A great idea to reach out to the people behind Cape Cosmic! So let’s get going!

The People Behind Cape Cosmic

Tell us about yourself and your studio, and what’s behind the name Cape Cosmic?

Q: I’m Quang Tran. I quit my job as a programmer, took what savings I had, moved back to my parents’ house, then spent 7 years doing game development. It’s been painful.

As for the name, Cape Cosmic, I like starry imagery, and I also like the name “Cape Cod”. I’ve never been there, but I think the name sounds cool. So combine the two, and voila. “Cape Cosmic”. Anna had the nice idea to make the A in “Cape Cosmic” a red triangle, to represent a mountain at the end of the universe.

A: I’m Annamária Klimkovič, and I was the lead artist for Phoenotopia – both the flash version, and PHO:A! I worked as an artist for several other indie games before, but PHO:A is the first one I worked on full-time.

W: I’m Will, aka sillythewilly, aka the composer!

What inspired you to make Phoenotopia: Awakening?

Quang: It started out as a flash tutorial project for myself. I had fairy tales and a much more humble thing in mind when it started. However, due to my inability to keep the scope creep in check, the project kept growing and growing, and that’s how the game got way oversized. The game is very unlike fairy tales now, since I let the story go where I felt natural. The finished game surprises me in a lot of ways.

Our writer Emily reviewed the game, and found it quite difficult at the start. Who (what kind of gamer) would most enjoy Phoenotopia?

Will: Having played through the entire game myself recently, it does have its difficult moments. And I consider myself pretty decent at gaming! To be frank, I would hesitate to recommend Phoenotopia to people who get easily frustrated. But if they can push past the frustrating bits I’d recommend Phoenotopia to people who enjoy exploration and find satisfaction in discovering new places and secrets, to those who enjoy solving puzzles that actually require some thought and sometimes pen and paper, to those who relish overcoming challenging obstacles and opponents through patience and experimentation. There’s also been recent updates to ease common complaints, one of which is the new menu option allowing players to customize gameplay options like basic attacks not draining stamina and more lenient cooking timers.

The Passion That Lead to Phoenotopia

What was the biggest challenge in making Phoenotopia? How did you overcome it?

Quang: Depending on when you ask me, my answer will change since so much of it was hard. Right now, I’d say the scale of the game. There was a flash game before this that served as an “outline.” So this new Phoenotopia had to hit all the notes of the previous flash game, but scaled up and better in every way. What I thought would be little flourishes to enhance the game, like the traversable world map, ended up being huge time sinks. A small town that I cobbled together in a week in the flash game ended up being 2 months of work in the new once we fleshed it out fully, improved the graphics, added lighting, and so forth.

Annamária: I always welcome any and all challenges, and it’s my absolute pleasure to overcome them! So what ended up being tested the most during the development instead, was simply my patience. When I first started working on PHOA, I thought it would be just a couple of months tops – just polishing some of the Flash version’s graphics (back then most of the art was done by Quang!) here and there. But then the scope of work kept on growing, and all the deadlines kept just flying by us at ludicrous speed, with the finish line nowhere in sight… 

And just like that, several years passed, and here we are now, with a game that transcended the initial scopes manyfolds and that I can be sincerely proud of. Honestly, a big part of me still can’t believe it’s actually done and out!

Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers
Image Comparison Flash and Switch

Will: I can’t deny thinking back then “Since this game is a remake of the original Flash game, I can just take the old songs and drop them in the new game, right? Easy peasy.” But one problem with the old soundtrack’s legacy was that back then I hadn’t really put much thought into things like having a unifying theme underlying everything. Trying to do that for the new soundtrack was tricky since the existing older songs already had their melodies set in stone. I ended up choosing to preserve the familiarity and nostalgia of the older songs while weaving the main theme into some of the newer songs.

How long did it take to make this game and what are the main tools you used to develop it?

Quang: It took six years. Unity was the main game engine. TILED to block out the levels. Audacity for sound effects. Surprisingly, google spreadsheets was one of the big ones. The entire game script is in a big spreadsheet, as well as many other key data files.

Annamária: Whenever I got started on a new area in the game, I made some preliminary rough mockups in Photoshop – while listening to the area’s gorgeous OST, if possible. Those helped us brainstorm the general style, colour palette and ‘feeling’ for that place.

Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers
Style, color palette and feeling for Phoenotopia

Once those were settled, I moved on to PyxelEdit to create the actual tiles, and Pixen for backgrounds and bigger props that didn’t need to be seamless. After that was done, all that was left is to put it all in Tiled, where using the level block outs that Quang provided me, I tiled and lit them.

Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers
Programming Magic

At that point, all that’s left was for Quang to apply his programming magic, and voilà! The level came alive with NPCs and monsters and everything in-between

We also had a super talented animator, Clement Swennes, who did all those gorgeous and smooth animations you can see in the game, (only the not-so-smooth ones were done by me, lol) but I’m not sure what his tools of trade are.

Will: For the soundtrack, my main tools were my Fantom X8 keyboard, my DAW of choice Reaper, some synths, and a bunch of samples, a mix of free and commercial stuff. Some examples: I used the Florestan string ensemble sf2 for some of the songs. Instruments from the Kontakt factory library like the orchestral flute. And the magical8bitplug is a fun and simple 8-bit sounding emulation.

Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers
Making the Soundtrack for Phoenotopia

What part of this game sparks the most joy for you?

Quang: The game’s been my number one priority for the past 6 years. So I’m mostly glad that all tasks related to the game are nearly done and I’ll soon get to move on to the next thing.

Annamária: As the artist, whenever I look at the game, I can only see things I’d like to improve and polish. Which is why what I enjoy the most is watching fans enjoying the game instead! Reading their kind comments, watching streams or letsplays, and just in general seeing the game through their eyes makes me finally appreciate all the hard work we put in this project, and realise it all has been worth it in the end. 

Most of all, I enjoy any and all fanart 🙂 And the passionate speedrunning community!

Will: I like chilling at the various fishing spots and wiping out the local fish population while soaking in the quiet ambience, the peace and tranquility, the beautiful environments and lighting, and the nice music (heh).

Indie Dev Interview LadiesGamers
Chilling in Phoenotopia

Advice about the Work-Life Balance?

In what ways do you try to maintain work-life balance at your studio?

Quang: I didn’t! As the main driver of the project, I felt I couldn’t afford to have a good work-life balance since pushing myself to the limit was one of the few things I had going in my favor. I pushed and squeezed myself as far as I could. Worked days, nights, weekends, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. You name it, I was working! I did tell Anna to take a break anytime she needed and for any reason. But she’s a workaholic too. She was answering my emails even on the weekends.

Annamária: As Quang says, work-life balance wasn’t exactly the priority during development. As a workaholic with no social obligations, the temptation to work all day long, every day, is just too irresistible when you have a ‘job’ that doesn’t physically force you to go home at 6PM. 

It’s far too common a story that work-life balance is non-existent in indie development – I guess we are just another part of the statistic.

Will: My full-time job is in a completely different non-music-related field, so writing the soundtrack was something I did in my free time (I guess that makes my work-life balance more of a work-work balance? Work-work-life balance?). It worked out nicely for me; because the game development took so long, I had plenty of free nights and weekends to write all the music requested. Some say making your hobby your job drains the passion out of it all, so I’m happy that I was able to do this as a hobby.

What advice would you offer aspiring developer working alone or in a tiny team?

Quang: Indie game development is like an iceberg, where 90% of its true cost is hidden below the surface. What seems like a manageable undertaking can slowly become overwhelming. It will punish you for every decision you made or didn’t make. For example, in the first flash game, I handled most of the game’s dialogue directly within the map editor. So wherever I placed an NPC object into the map editor, I’d input the NPC’s text snippet as well. I’d right click, add field, type “speech: Hello. This is Panselo Town.”

Seems simple enough right? Bzzzt. Wrong. This won’t scale well. Later, when you have 200 level files, the game’s dialogue will also be split across 200 level files. There’s no way to examine the script as a whole and check for spelling errors or speech inconsistencies. 

Game development is like that. It’ll beat you over the head and yell “Why weren’t you thinking 20 steps ahead!?” “Why weren’t you thinking of the translator who’d have to work with the files?” “What didn’t you establish a workflow where you can easily edit the script!?”

Now imagine there are a hundred decisions like that across the game’s entire development, anywhere from the game’s physics, to NPC/enemy interactions, menu designing, marketing the game, and so forth. Each one you get wrong can have devastating consequences. We certainly didn’t get everything right – I thought we failed the marketing step for instance since we’re suffering some abysmally low sales figures.

So my advice is to read the blogs of failed kickstarter games and take notes. Jot down all the pratfalls to avoid. There’s no substitute for the real life experience however, so expect to take some blows. Brace for impact, then pick yourself up and keep going.

Annamária: Be nimble and ready to wear as many hats as might be needed. Big teams have the luxury of being able to have a person (even people!) responsible for even the smallest of tasks, but in indie development everyone does everything.

It might seem scary and stressful at times due to dealing with the unknown so much, but it’s a great opportunity to find out if you might have any hidden talents you might’ve not even known about. For example – by the end of the development I was even helping out with the writing and proofreading!

Will Communication is crucial, especially when working remotely! Quang and I would chat often over IMs and email to discuss song requests, how it would fit into the game, what sort of atmosphere and mood was desired, the musical style and genre, tempo, instrumentation, example songs from other games, and so on. Thanks to that (and Quang’s leniency) I rarely had to do more than one or two revisions before committing to a musical idea.

Let’s Talk Gaming!

What kind of cool game(s) would you love to make in the future?

Quang: After making something for 6 years, I’d like to leverage all my gained knowledge to see what I can create in one year. Something fun with immediate appeal. I’m thinking of a Western theme since I happen to like Western movies.

Annamária: Happy to go along for the ride wherever the next game takes us!

I assume you are a gamer yourself? What are your favorite recent games?

Quang: I haven’t been able to play games that much as of late. I think the last game I really enjoyed was Dragon Quest XI S. That’s a game that has so much love poured into it, and when it’s done you just feel really satisfied because they answered every question and left no stone unturned.

Annamária Ever since I started making games, I sadly don’t have the time to play them anymore. Instead, I watch letsplays! There were many great big games coming out recently, but I’d prefer to shout out fellow indies – I adored There is No Game: Wrong Dimension, Lair of the Clockwork God and Coffee Talk. Marvelous treasures of ingenuity. (We agree, Annamária: our review is here!)

Will Outer Wilds is in my personal top 3 games I’ve played this year, it has that amazing sense of wonder and exploration as you explore the galaxy and piece together the overarching story. I had goosebumps several times during the ending. And a great soundtrack! If we’re going with games released this year, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is another top 3 that was a joy to play in every way – gameplay, art, music, story-telling.


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