How does someone arrive at founding their own game studio? How do you go from Mario Maker to having your own games on sale for the world? These are just a few of the questions I asked Barry Johnson, founder and lead-everything at Lillymo Games.
Barry has gotten off to a quick start as a game developer, releasing three games in just over two years. Perils of Baking was his first foray in 2018, a game in the mold of classic 2D platformers. Habroxia followed in late 2019, a side-scrolling space shooter with a bit of a twist.
In March of 2020, Lillymo released its third game, a twin-stick brick-breaking game with a story, entitled Twin Breaker: A Sacred Symbols Adventure. This was a collaboration with Colin Moriarty, a prominent (if controversial) game critic. The collaboration eventually led to Colin purchasing a stake in Lillymo.
So let’s get right into it, and trace the journey of an indie video game creator!
I want to begin by congratulating you on the success of Twin Breaker, and the recent sale of 49% of the studio to Colin Moriarty’s company, Colin’s Last Stand. Would you say that you were surprised by the success of the game from a sales perspective and that Colin wanted to formalize your partnership in the way he did?
I think these sales were in the realm of predictability for us, but I am pleased to see them. Some of the aspects of the sales were a surprise, such as the numbers in America outpacing EU by a large margin and the PS Vita physical version outselling the PS4 physical version.
We had hoped to hit 10,000 and we have managed to pass that number solely on our PlayStation releases, so we are pleased with that and hope to grow that number once the game releases on other platforms in the near future.
As for our partnership, we had discussed something like this fairly early on.
We had meant to finalize things much earlier, but things just got delayed.
I was definitely surprised initially that Colin would want to work with me, it was very unexpected to go from listening to Colin’s podcast to working with him.
Medium’s audience contains many aspiring game designers and even some that currently work in the field, so I would like to give them a glimpse into the story of how Lillymo Games got started. Did you always know you wanted to make games or at least work in gaming as a career?
I always wanted this to be my career, though I did not think it would ever happen.
At one point after thinking about if I could do it or not for ages I just started spending all of my free time learning, following tutorials, trying things out and getting started on making Perils of Baking.
I knew I had always wanted to make games, so I told myself I would finally go all out. I gave myself a deadline of my 30th birthday to release the game, and it came down to the month but I made it in time.
I’ve heard you say before that Mario Maker had a role in the studio getting started, can you explain that for us? I have to imagine there are a lot of people out there right now in a similar place, using in-game creation tools or even creation-games like Dreams.
Yeah, I was really into Mario Maker before I started making Perils of Baking.
Something happened where some of my levels were deleted from the servers to save server space and I was unable to re-upload them. This frustrated me but ultimately was a blessing because it pushed me to start making a game of my own.
I had seen a post on the PlayStation blog about GameMaker and looked into it a bit. The room editor looked similar to Mario Maker to me, so I figured it was the perfect time to make my own game where I can design my own levels.
I told myself I would spend all of my spare time trying to make a PS4 game in the vein of Super Mario.
Your first game, Perils of Baking, has a theme that I doubt has been replicated many times in gaming history (specifically, one brother has been taken over by an evil baker’s hat). How did you come up with the idea?
I knew I wanted to have two brothers who worked in a profession that would provide an interesting theme.
Similar to how the Mario Bros. are plumbers, after thinking through a number of professions I thought that a Baker would work the best.
Having sentient baked goods as enemies seemed a nice match for the light-hearted vibe I wanted.
The game is clearly influenced by the 2D Super Mario Bros. games of old. Is it a deliberate ode to those games, or was it more of a situation where that was your comfort zone so that’s what you gravitated toward as a way to get your game design career off the ground?
It is meant to be a tribute to the 2D Mario games and the Donkey Kong Country games. Those were some of my first games as a kid, and remain some of my favourites, so it was also a comfort zone thing.
Moving on to your next game, Habroxia, is a space shooter in the vein of the classic NES games like Gradius and Lifeforce. Very different sort of game than Perils, what made you choose that genre and what was your inspiration in designing it?
Space shooters were always a genre that I thought was really cool.
It isn’t a genre that I am as good at playing, some of the classics I would ‘Game Over’ pretty quickly & regularly.
For Habroxia the main ideas I had in mind were:
1) to explore the control scheme that I came up with for the game (using the triggers for alternate firing methods)
2) to make a shooter where you could upgrade overtime, so that even players who were not as skilled could grind and level up enough to beat the game.
3) to have the game shift between vertical and horizontal sections during levels
Some other ideas came along the way, but those were the 3 main pillars I set out with. I also thought it would be a fun challenge to take on a genre that I respected but was not as familiar with.
You’ve said you used GameMaker to create these games, what drew you to this creation tool as opposed to Unity or some of the other game design suites out there?
I described earlier how I saw it on PS Blog and soon after saw the room editor demoed by someone on YouTube.
So knowing I could mess around in a Mario Maker-like environment to do level design was the original hook.
My plans are to make many 2D games in the future, and it seems a very simple and useful engine to work in.
I’d like to learn a bit about your creative and design processes for actually making the games. Do you plan out everything in advance, like with storyboards or detailed maps of the levels you intend to make? Just jump in and code for hours on end? Something in the middle?
I have a list of game ideas that I come up with and have taped to my fridge.
Each game is just a 2–3 sentence description, that’s where they typically start. Though games like our upcoming RPG start in Colin’s notes.
From there I might go into a 1 room demo or start a notebook.
Sometimes I will dedicate my time specifically to level design, or boss design, typically I am just playing and seeing what is off and working on that. It seems to me that once you get started you can just find an endless amount of things you could do to improve and build on things. There is a lot of taking notes and checking things off.
Moving on to your latest game, Twin Breaker, which is a twin-stick style, brick-breaking game that you made in conjunction with Colin Moriarty before he bought into the studio. Did you have a plan to make that kind of game all along after Habroxia or was it going to be some other genre before this happened?
Twin Breaker was going to happen, but it was going to be a smaller title before Colin’s involvement.
I had originally thought of it as a smaller project to chill out a bit between Habroxia and whatever would come next.
It ended up being a bit more involved by the end, and I am very pleased with how it changed for the better.
There were some other projects/ideas that we considered that are going to be on hold for now (such as the brawler starring Chris Ray Gun).
Twin Breaker has a pretty involved story with quite a bit of dialogue, how did incorporating all that change your design process, and did it lead to any unexpected complications?
Yeah, that was new for me.
There were some unexpected issues with text formatting in general that we smoothed out. I think there was also some concern about the text scroll speed/advance text button. We managed to patch the story text to advance in a way that people are happier with now, that was a lesson for future titles.
I think the story adds a better pacing to the overall experience and added incentive to advance the game.
Most of the game was done when we started adding in story, some things like the level intro, credits and times up sequences pulled from the story.
The generation ships and possessed generation ships are used in various ways in that regard, as well as some broken down ones are left in levels.
I know you are busy working on Habroxia 2 right now, how does the feedback you received on the first game inform your ideas and process for the second game? Some reviews seemed to criticize it for being too straightforward and plain, did that elicit any specific changes in the second game?
I’ve read through all of the feedback from Habroxia 1 and have aligned it with our ambitions for what comes next.
I had at one point started work on what would be a large patch for the first game. The more I planned out all of the things I wanted to add and the more I talked with Wayne and Colin, the more obvious it became that we should make a full on sequel instead.
So this game is happening because we have great ideas of how we can improve on the first game.
Last question, I asked Colin the same thing, if you have unlimited resources at your disposal, what game are you making?
I don’t think money would change the type of games I am making.
I would remove some of my responsibilities so as to focus more on specific things myself, and I would hire artists.
I was talking with Wayne (Habroxia 2’s artist) about the use of budgets in games, and expressed to him that a AAA game made by Lillymo Games might look something like a Vanillaware (ed. Vanillaware is a Japanese indie studio who have made games including Odin’s Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon’s Crown) game.
My dream list of games to make is the same list we are making games from already. Colin and I have very similar tastes and his game ideas overlap 1:1 with my list so far. It would be great to have a big budget, but I think we could make all of them while staying small.
Thanks again Barry for taking time away from the important stuff to do this interview with us, best wishes for all the exciting games you have in the pipeline!
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