Other Sh!t

Conversations with a Video Game Developer – Jan Kozlowski of Breakfall

August 7, 2014
Starwhal Cover Photo

As much as we love to blog about our experiences making food and drinks, there comes a time when we want to blog about other sh!t too, and today is that day. With a few glasses of Mama Juana in hand, we sat down with Jan Kozlowski from Breakfall, to discuss his experience making the wickedly awesome video game, Starwhal.

Recently playable at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, as well as the Evolution 2014 Championship Series in Las Vegas, Starwhalwas met with tears of joy and laughter from fans of competitive arcade action. The game is currently available on Steam Early Access, with the Release Version scheduled to follow in the early Fall. The game is also scheduled for release on Wii U, Playstation 3, and Playstation 4 this Winter.

Check out the trailer before jumping into our conversation with Jan, below.

Jan Kozlowski - Photo by ADV Photography

Jan Kozlowski – Photo by ADV Photography

FMMS: Starwhal is a retro-inspired game that lets you and your friends control a floppy narwhal in an epic space battle to the death! How long have you had the idea for this game?

Jan Kozlowski: We created the original prototype version of STARWHAL at Global Game Jam 2013, a 48-hour competition where you basically try to make a game in a weekend. The team got together and discussed for several hours what kind of game we wanted to make. The theme that year was just an audio clip of a heart beat, and around that time several of us were pretty obsessed with Get on Top (by Bennett Foddy, creator of QWOP). We were pretty much settled on the idea of a making a two player versus game with some silly-looking physics. At first, we were thinking about doing it with unicorns, but after realizing that they’d be too complicated to implement and animate in a short time frame, we settled on narwhals; which sound even more ridiculous than unicorns, but are actually real!

FMMS: Was Starwhal your first game?

JK: Our first was a game called Marvin’s Mittens, a 2D platformer with a focus on exploration and collection. The game has a painterly art style that makes it feel like playing a storybook. You go through the world collecting magical snowflakes which increase your jump height, allowing you to explore more of the world.

The project originally started with Jason, Mike, and Martin, but steadily grew into the core Breakfall team. We had Sunday workdays for nearly four years at Jason’s apartment, where we would all bring our computers over and work on the game. Of course there were also a lot of heated discussions about game design, Italian sandwich runs, and playing games together along the way, but the humble beginnings of our future studio definitely came from people’s dedication to making cool stuff with cool people.

Screenshot from Marvin's Mittens

Screenshot from Marvin’s Mittens

FMMS: Your team recently ran a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign; what are your thoughts on Kickstarter being an avenue for indie game developers? Did you have a positive experience overall?

JK: Yes, we think it worked out really well for us! Kickstarter can be a bit tricky for games, though. We’ve found that in general, the games that are already quite deep into development tend to do do the best. We’ve seen quite a few great looking games struggle because they don’t have slick gameplay footage, so because of that, we find that Kickstarter is more for games looking to finish development rather than getting an idea off the ground. For ourselves, we’d have to think about whether we’d try it again for a future project. It would depend on the game and how far along it’s in development.

Organizing a Kickstarter campaign is lot of work! We had most of the team busy for a while preparing the campaign page – all the text, images, and video take time to put together, and on top of that it has to be appealing to potential backers. Many hours were spent in team meetings planning out how best to go about it, but after that there were updates to be written, backer rewards to be fulfilled, and logistics to be figured out. It can be a great opportunity to get some much needed funding, but it’s by no means free money!

FMMS: Would you ever consider moving from an independent model to a traditional publisher arrangement? What pros and cons do you think there might be?

JK: That’s a tough nut to crack! Traditionally, the view is that being independent has a greater financial risk but allows you maintain full creative control, and going with a publisher reduces that risk at the cost of creative control.

To be honest, we’ve heard stories of both excellent and terrible developer/publisher relationships. There are some that truly believe in and support the developers by going the extra mile – doing things like creating mascot-style costumes of game characters to walk around at events, to handling agreements and costs to secure an awesome licensed music soundtrack for the game. On the flip side, we know developers who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them when a game that’s halfway through development is forced to change into a completely different genre.

For a small team like ours, developing a game is a big enough task on its own. If we could find a publisher to handle the marketing/promotion/distribution for us, it would be a huge weight off our shoulders to be able to just focus on making a great game.

4 Player Madness


FMMS: Based on your experience, what advice would you give for aspiring indie game developers?

JK: We once heard a great piece of advice about this: “Do you want to be a game designer, or do you want to design games?” Basically, you don’t need to wait for the job title to pop up in order to start doing it! Now more than ever, there are lots of great resources out there that make it possible for just about anybody to dive in and learn about game development if they’re motivated. STARWHAL was developed using Unity, which has a free version available for anyone to try.

A few of us at Breakfall actually studied game development in college, but I don’t think it’s a requirement. Other members studied web development, architecture, and animation. Even without direct game development experience, the willingness to learn and create was what brought the team together. From our experience, we’ve found that it’s often more important what you do in your off-hours than what you do at school/work.

FMMS: What influenced your passion for video game development?

JK: Gaming has been my main hobby for as long as I can remember! I always played games with my brother growing up, and even when he would play single player games, I would always love to watch. Being able to see and interact with so many worlds and characters and stories while often testing your skills has always been fascinating to me. But beyond that, gaming has always been a pastime to experience with other people – I’ve spent countless hours playing games with friends, and met some lifelong friends because of it. I used to play Dance Dance Revolution all the time in high school, and through that community I met some great guys who I ended up traveling with to Tokyo! Also, one of our friends from the Smash Bros. Ottawa community joined Breakfall to work on Marvin’s Mittens with us. It’s kind of amazing to meet great, passionate people through a common hobby!

4 Player Lava Duel

FMMS: What are some of your all time favourite games?

JK: So many to choose from… I’ll try to keep it brief! Curse of Monkey Island, Dark Souls, Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Worms Armageddon, Final Fantasy IV, Starcraft II, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Smash Bros. Brawl, and The New Tetris.

FMMS: What is your all time favourite FMMS recipe so far?

JK: haha, I’m really enjoying this Mama Juana!

FMMS: Awesome! Jan, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk video games and video game development with us!

JK: It was my pleasure! Thanks for having me!

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  • Reply Jessie August 11, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I’m going to assume this is a sponsored post. It definitely reads like one.

    • Reply Anthony August 12, 2014 at 8:53 am

      Oh no! I’m sorry my enthusiasm was misinterpreted and thanks for bringing this to our attention. To be completely honest this post is absolutely not sponsored. I genuinely loved this game and my comments are purely my opinion and have not been influenced by any other factor.

      Thanks for reading Jessie!

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