We talked to the Russian indie devs about their journey into game development, Populus Run, and the importance of music in video games.
Nizhny Novgorod may have felt like the centre of the planet for much of this summer’s World Cup, but the developers at FIFTYTWO have been creating their own beautiful universes there for years. Using innovative and immersive designs on Kenshō, JELLIES! and the upcoming Populus Run, they are part of a flourishing Russian games industry. We spoke to co-founder Mikhail Shagin.
You used to make games in your spare time. What was it that inspired you to make it into a full-time career?
“Before founding FIFTYTWO, all three of us worked in the same company making PC and mobile media software. We always dreamed about making games, so we started building something together in our free time.
We were absolute newbies in the gaming industry. Our future partners from the US somehow found us on Instagram. We were just posting concept images with a hashtag #indiegames. They loved what we were doing and offered to promote our first game, Jellies. It made us believe we were going the right way. So we decided to quit our jobs to run our own studio.”
JELLIES! and Kenshō are both beautiful. How did you go about finding your artistic style?
“We have no constant artistic style for each game we create. Every time we start a new project, we want to make it look unique and catchy. Everything new and unknown inspires us.
Working on Kenshō we were inspired by Kazuki Takamatsu — a Japanese artist experimenting with light and shadows. We found an interesting technical solution to get that effect of magical darkness, and it made this recognizable Kenshō style.”
In Kenshō the music is like such a pivotal element of the game’s ambience. It feels like a mechanic in itself. At what stage of the creative process do you start thinking about sound?
“For the first time [JELLIES!], we started thinking about sound right [at] the end. It’s the common way for most developers. For the second time, we did it somewhere in the middle. It turned out that music and SFX to a large extent affected the final game, [the] emotions it gives, and storyline. It was impossible to achieve the same [result] if making the sound in the end.
We loved this experience so much that now we start working on music at the stage of prototyping. Sound, like gameplay or graphics, should also be constantly reconsidered and improved.”
Oscar Rydelius soundtrack is cathartic and really gets you into the game. What drew you to his work and how did you go about finding him?
“I loved the game Hotline Miami and especially its OST and SFX. So, I wrote to El Huervo, one of the composers who worked on this game’s music. El Huervo was very friendly but said he doesn’t actually work on SFX and recommended us his good friend Oscar. They are from the same Swedish city, Gothenburg, and worked together on another project…Oscar had the same passion as we did and he became part of our team.”
“Oscar created a music album for Kenshō, which is really mind-blowing. He used real instruments: pump organ, violin, piano, accordion, guitar, electric bass, melodica, and harmonica. That was a new stage for us.”
The upcoming Populus Run is distinct in genre from Kenshō and JELLIES! What inspired you to make a running game?
“We were brainstorming about the new game for 2 days. We came up with an idea of a running game, where you should control the crowd of runners. They all hustle, fall and behave absurdly…We put a funny, ironic idea into this game. Everybody is hurrying somewhere. People run to the airport, to a rock concert, to a Black Friday sale, to a queue for a new mobile phone. It looks ridiculous and there should be a game about it.”
Lastly, what is the indie gaming industry like in Russia? How do you think it compares to North America and the rest of Europe?
“Indie game development is very popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. Prices and living cost there are usually lower than in the US and Central Europe. That’s why there are many developers who could afford to start their own projects or make something experimental.
The industry itself is quite developed, there are a lot of big game conferences, huge developer companies, investors and funds. In Russia there is a strong focus on free-to-play casual mobile projects. Indies usually publish their games on Steam. The console market is not very popular compared to the US.”