Flat Black Films Interview

Flat Black Films

Legend tells that there was once a tribute game to the golden era of the CRPG created for mobile that was so good that people said it was even better than the titles it aped. Some even whisper that industry legend Richard Garriott gave it the nod of approval (yes THAT Richard GArriott). That game was Lowlander, and it was the creation of Flat Black Films, a small indy studio that even now preps for the release of an even better sequel on an unsuspecting public. We steal a little of their time to answer some questions for My Boxed Universe.

MBU
Firstly, a great big thanks for taking the time out of Beta for ‘Lowlander II: Lowerlander’ to talk to us here at My Boxed Universe today. Could you introduce yourself as the face behind Flat Black Films?

BOB
Hey – thanks, my name is Bob Sabiston. My company Flat Black Films is probably better known for the animation we have done, in films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but for the past few years I’ve really been getting into apps and games as a solo indie developer.

MBU
How did Flat Black Films come to be?

BOB
I started doing animated short films in college – one of my early shorts was on the first episode of the old MTV show “Liquid Television” in 1991. Flat Black Films is just the name I started putting on my work and eventually I registered it as an actual company.

MBU
What kind of RPGs do you personally enjoy?

BOB
If you’ve seen Lowlander then you know I am a huge Ultima fan – II, III, and IV mostly. The first two Wizardry games also. I played all those in high school on my Apple II+. But since then it’s a genre I’ve enjoyed as it has evolved. Does Zelda count? I love all the Zelda games. I liked the first couple of Fire Emblem games on the DS. I like the giant open-world games like Fallout 3, Skyrim and The Witcher III, though I petered out before finishing any of those. Recently I played through Bloodborne and Dark Souls III and loved them, even though I usually dislike hard games (because I suck at them). Bloodborne was really something special.

MBU
Most people like to focus on games such as ‘Ultima IV’ and ‘Dragon Quest’ when they produce a tribute to a classic of the genre. What encouraged you to look to Ultima II for inspiration?

BOB
Well, a few years ago I played through the early Ultima games in an emulator on my laptop, and I really like how quickly Ultima II moves. It is mostly about the exploration, puzzles, and uncovering the world. The later games incorporate that whole RPG battle-party mechanic that became ubiquitous, where every few steps you’ve got to stop and fight a group of monsters with your group. It can be fun to manage your party’s equipment/stats and level them up in that kind of game, but on the other hand it can become tedious having to stop over and over again to have these 5-minute battles. I can barely imagine completing Ultima IV in its original incarnation, on an Apple II without the ability to quick-save through an emulator.

MBU
How long did Lowlander take to produce?

BOB
Hm – had to look at my notes. It took about nine months, from March to December of 2014. I did it in GameMaker, which tremendously simplified the programming. I had never used a game engine like that before, and it was a lot of fun to do it that way.

Shopping

Dry-wit can be found in every corner of the world.

MBU
How did it do financially?

BOB
Well, I certainly didn’t get rich off it! I think it has sold a couple of thousand copies, maybe a dozen or so per week now. That’s just on iOS – it’s also available on Mac and Android, though those sales are so small they aren’t worth mentioning.

It was more of a hobby/passion project, so the fact that it was reviewed fairly well and people seem to like it was more important to me. I never look at the sales because they are just kind of depressing!

MBU
Were there any learning curves you had to overcome with the original title?

BOB
Well, GameMaker was pretty easy to learn, but I didn’t really know anything about making RPG games work when I started. So the rpg mechanics, the math relating to attacks/defense etc was something I had to research a little bit and experiment with. Other than that it was mostly the typical debugging headaches that come with any software project.

MBU
How long has the sequel been in production?

BOB
About two years now – it’s the same thing, just Saturdays and late workdays. I guess it is fitting that it has taken twice the time because it’s definitely over twice as long! I didn’t plan for it to be much bigger, but by the time I wrapped up all the elements I’d started it was much bigger than the first.

MBU
We’ve been testing the second title, and have to admit it’s one of the best RPGs we’ve ever encountered on mobile. Were there any features that didn’t make the cut from the games original inception?

BOB
Thanks! Well yes, originally I was going to have a space element, kind of like you go to space in Ultima II. But the story on the ground became so big that there just wasn’t room for it. There are a couple of other story ideas I thought would be cool, but I will have to hold onto those for the third one, if I ever do that.

MBU
You’ve chosen to go with the ‘pay once’ model for the Lowlander series. It’s a fantastic fit for this kind of game and frankly a bargain for the scale of the world players will be getting. Were you ever tempted to produce a Lite or free Demo version to encourage players into the game?

BOB
Yes, I experimented with an ad on the title page, and an in-app purchase to remove the ads, but it just seemed to cheapen it aesthetically. And realistically, I don’t think it is the kind of game that can really benefit much from that type of monetization. My audience is so small that I won’t really be making much money either way – I may as well stick with the payment model that I personally would want in a game.

HouseFight

Combat can be frenetic.

MBU
Feedback for the sequel at beta has been split between people who loved its early stages and those who felt it was too challenging, prompting you to include a ‘Classic’ hard version as you originally intended and a more accessible (easier) mode. How do you think this reflects on the player base for mobile?

BOB
I’m still experimenting with that. I’d like to have just a single difficulty for Lowerlander, and I’ll remove the mode switch if I can find the right balance. But yes, many mobile players seem to expect a little hand-holding at first. Things should be easy and then gradually ramp up. Whereas with Ultima II, it is HARD to stay alive at first. Lowlander was hard in that way also, and I had hoped to have the second one be a little easier, just so that more players might stick around for what is a pretty long adventure. Some of my new beta testers did quit early, so I’ve been trying to find a good balance that retains what I like about the gameplay while not alienating the majority.

Lowlander 1

Gameplay is portrait and easy one-handed.

MBU
How much bigger is the world map for this sequel?

BOB
The map itself is the same size, actually. It’s mostly the story, the number and depth of the quests that are longer. But also because of the way you unlock certain areas of the map, like the way you get a sailing ship, for example, it seems like a bigger world. It’s not the size of the map, it’s what you do with it. I always thought it was kind of funny/cool that the world map in the early Ultimas was the same size as the town maps. It just took a lot longer to get around on the outside map.

MBU
What are your hopes for this second instalment? What does it bring to the table?

BOB
I just hope a decent number of people play it and enjoy it. It’s not a huge revolution from the first one, but rather it advances forward a little bit on every front, I’d say. People probably expected me to add the party-based fighting system for this one, but my reasons for not wanting that haven’t changed.

I always look for this type of game on my phone and am disappointed that there are so few good ones. I love the simplicity of old-school RPG graphics and gameplay. I’m also a big proponent of portrait-style, one handed-games. I’m glad Clash Royale has been so successful because maybe we’ll see more portrait games coming out. Anyway, I am just looking to contribute a new retro-style RPG to the genre.

MBU
Can we expect to see a third game cap the trilogy in traditional fashion?

BOB
I definitely need a break right now, the well’s pretty dry you might say. But the thing is after developing this whole engine and the game framework, after a while it feels like a shame to not use it for something. So who knows, maybe in a year I’ll be feeling trilogy-minded.

MBU
Any thoughts on bringing the series to Steam?

BOB
Ha – well, back with the first Lowlander I tried to put it on Steam Greenlight, since I’d developed a desktop version. But people slammed the hell out of it, they seemed personally offended! So, I doubt it.

MBU
Did you ever consider branching out into a party dynamic or has the plan always been to stick with a single hero?

BOB
Well, even though I say that party thing is tedious, I am playing Dragon Quest III right now on my phone and I do admit it is pretty fun. So, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see when it comes time to think about making another one.

Lowerlander

Lowerlander adds additional colour to the traditional formula.

MBU
Do you have any advice for budding game devs?

BOB
I don’t feel like I have been successful enough at this to really be offering advice. And this game is really based on the legendary work of a titan in the industry, Richard Garriott, so it’s not like I have come up with something very new here.

I will say that I think it has probably hurt me to be pursuing this as a solo developer. If you find a group of like-minded, technically savvy friends to share the workload and pursue the same goal, it seems to me that you improve your chances at success.

Also, if it is something you have never done before, try not to be too ambitious on your first go-round. These things always take way longer and more work than you expect! Finally, I saw a talk recently by the guy who made that game Downwell, and he came upon that game after a long period of making himself make a different game every week, just to practice. That seems like excellent advice to me, and I hope to try it myself someday soon.

MBU
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. For those who want to know more you can find the official Lowlander page HERE. Be sure to look for Lowlander II: Lower Lander when it releases, we can assure you it’s more than worth the price of entry.