Pencil Test Studios talk Armikrog, The Neverhood and the tribulations of game development

Mike Deitz from Pencil Test Studios talks about the trials and tribulations of game development, and why stop-motion animation is worth it

Pencil Test Studios recently released its hotly anticipated game, Armikrog, for which you can read our review here. We recently spoke to Pencil Test Studios to talk all things Armikrog, game development, Kickstarter, and lots more.

Armikrog is a point-and-click adventure game that harkens back to the heyday of the genre. Inspired by LucasArts classics like Grim Fandango, Pencil Test Studios wanted to create a true adventure/puzzle game that forces you to think and remember. Armikrog is about Tommynaut and his faithful companion Beak Beak, who crash land on an alien planet and find themselves trapped in a weird fortress known as Armikrog. Tommynaut and Beak Beak have to work together to escape the dangers of Amrikrog, but also learn its secret history while doing so. 

The game's animation was painstakingly created by hand, using stop-motion animation, just like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline and many other movies, which gives it a very unique look. It isn't a very common art style seen in games.

Speaking to GameSkinny, Pencil Test Studios co-owner, Mike Dietz opened up about the game's lengthy development cycle, the animation, voice actors, and the challenges the team faced.

GameSkinny: The game was supposed to release September 8th, but you guys announced a short delay until September 30th to iron out the bugs. Was this a tough decision to make?

Deitz: Tough doesn't even come close to describing it.We were trying so hard to make the September 8th date, but there were a couple new issues that cropped up at the 11th hour that we had to fix before we could release. We agonized not only over the decision to delay, but also because the decision came so close to the intended release date.

GameSkinny: Going back to the first days of Armikrog, where did the idea for the game come from? I imagine it was very different in its embryonic state, or maybe you had a clear vision from the outset.

Deitz: The story and characters were initially created by our long time collaborator Doug TenNapel, who was also the creator of Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood. Doug has a unique and recognizable art style. For Armikrog, we knew we wanted to make a game that we would want to play. That's what we've done in the past, so we knew with that as our barometer the game would appeal to the fans of many of our previous games.

The story and details of the game changed considerably during development, which is normal for any kind of creative production, but the initial idea of an astronaut and his buddy crash landing on an unknown planet and becoming trapped in a strange fortress was the thread that tied everything together all the way through.

Armikrog's protagonist, Tommynaut

GameSkinny: Armikrog has a very distinct art style. It's a very eye-catching game that harkens back to TV and movies from the 80's and 90's. What was the inspiration behind the Claymation art style? (Beak-Beak reminds me of Frankenweenie!)

Deitz: Interestingly, our main influence for Armikrog was the stop motion game we created ourselves a few years back, The Neverhood. Though only moderately successful upon its release in 1996, The Neverhood became a cult hit with fans all around the globe. Those fans have been clamoring for years for another game like it, which we are delivering with Armikrog. It's not a sequel, but instead we like to call Armikrog a spiritual successor to The Neverhood -- it's the game we've wanted to make for years but were never able to secure the backing from a traditional risk-adverse publisher. It wasn't until Kickstarter cropped up that we were able to reach out directly to the fans and get the game made.

Aesthetically, The Neverhood was based on a series of paintings created by Douglas TenNapel called A Beautiful Day in the Neverhood. Those paintings, and subsequently the art direction of The Neverhood and Armikrog, were all influenced by the work of the early 20th century era comic artist George Herriman.

From a gaming perspective, the old LucasArts games were a big influence, as well as the old Myst games. Those guys invented and perfected the genre.

The Neverhood, released in 1996

GameSkinny: You guys actually used classic sculpting and stop-motion animation to create the look of Armikrog?

Deitz: That's right, just about everything in Armikrog is a real object, sculpted and photographed for inclusion in the game. There are a few hand drawn animation scenes used in special places in the game, but other than it's all stop motion animation.

GameSkinny: What were some of the complications you encountered in the making of the game, as it pertains to the art-style?

Deitz: The main disadvantage of creating a game with stop motion, working in clay and other physical materials, is the sheer cost of creating all the game assets in terms of time, materials and labor. Simply put, you have to build and photograph everything you see on screen, nothing comes for free. And because everything is a real object, you are subject to the often restrictive laws of physics. When you work in CG, the more traditional route in game development, all of your assets are virtual, and as a result are much easier to iterate, and you can cheat real world physics as needed.

That said, in my opinion, the visual results that can be achieved working with real, physical materials like clay are stunning and far outweigh any and all of the disadvantages.

Ed Schoefield & Mike Deitz working on the stop-motion animation

GameSkinny: You managed to get Jon Heder, Rob Paulsen, and Michael J. Nelson to do voice work for the game, how did that come about? And what did they bring to the game?

Deitz: They're actually all friends of Doug TenNapel and all fans of some of our previous games, so they were more than happy to jump in and be part of the team. Great guys, all of them!

GameSkinny: As mentioned, several members of the Pencil Test team worked on Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood, the lineage of those games is still very clear in Armikrog. How would you say those games have influenced, if at all, the making of Armikrog?

Deitz: Well Doug TenNapel created the characters for Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, and now Armikrog, so his art direction style certainly ties all three together, as does his unique story sensibilities.

The other influence EWJ and The Neverhood had on Armikrog is the fan base. Without them Armikrog would never have been made.

GameSkinny: You already alluded to this, but Armikrog was funded on Kickstarter for over $900,000. That isn't a ton of money considering all of the sculptures, stop-motion animation, voice talent, and of course the game development. Has funding been an issue or was it thoroughly planned out with the stretch goals helping add the actors?

Deitz: That's true, despite being perceived as a very financially successful Kickstarter, the money brought in from the campaign was considerably less than the budget for The Neverhood twenty years ago. People had expectations of Armikrog being similar in size and scope to The Neverhood, but Armikrog's budget was less than half of The Neverhood's, even before accounting for 20 years of inflation. The other thing many people don't realize is that the amount of money you actually receive from a Kickstarter, after Amazon fees, taxes and paying for backer rewards, is quite a bit less than the amount you reach at the end of the campaign.

However, we were committed to keeping the project and our company independent, so we stretched the budget as far as we could and also invested in the game ourselves.

Deitz working with a friendly-looking creature

GameSkinny: Even before the game came out it had been covered by MTV, Game Informer and even Rolling Stone. Furthermore, fans have really taken to the game, sending you some great art on Twitter. How has the reception been for you? Did it add to the pressure to deliver a great experience?

Deitz: The response to our "Playable Art" has been extremely positive and encouraging, and like our old game The Neverhood, it seems to appeal to and receive coverage in the general media, not just in game publications. However the pressure to deliver a great experience has been there all along.

GameSkinny: As mentioned, the game is set to launch on STEAM on September 30th, any news of a PS4 or Wii U release date?

Deitz: Nothing we can talk about just yet. Stay tuned.

GameSkinny: Anything you want to add?

Deitz: Just a big thank you to all our backers and supporters. We couldn't do any of this without you.

Amrikrog is available now on Steam and the link to our review of the game is at the top. Stay tuned to GameSkinny for any news on a console version of Armikrog. Let us know what you thought of the game below!

Published Oct. 17th 2015
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