Akash: Path of the Five Interview — Truant Pixel Talks The State of Otome, Being an Indie and Nintendo Switch
Truant Pixel sits down with us to discuss their upcoming PlayStation 4 title visual novel -- Akash: Path of the Five. While we are at it, we talk about the constraints of being indie in a niche genre, developing for future consoles and more.
In a surprise announcement, Truant Pixel’s second game — Akash: Path of the Five — was announced earlier this week for PlayStation 4. The game will be a brand new otome title — a story based visual novel that is targeted towards the female market. Generally one of the goals, besides the main plot goal, is to develop a romantic relationship between the female charachter and one of several male characters
After Akash: Path of the Five’s announcement, DualShockers sat down with Truant Pixel Co-Founders Souha and Maher to talk about the upcoming project.. We discussed Akash: Path of the Five, the state of otome games in the west, working on an extremely limiting schedule and budget and even Nintendo Switch prospects for the fledgling developer.
Akash: Path of the Five will currently release exclusively on PlayStation 4.
DualShockers: Let’s start with an introduction — who are you and what do you do?
Souha: We are Truant Pixel — I am Sou and this is Maher. We are a husband and wife team. We also have a programmer Ian, so really it’s three of us.
We’ve been operating in this capacity for a little over a year. So we started in Fall 2015 doing just themes — actually, Maher used to do themes on a contract basis for a couple of companies since 2011, maybe–
SA: Oh, 2008? That long ago! But it was kind an off-and-on thing. We only just in 2015 decided we wanted to make a go of it. We started making our own themes.
MA: It was a contract basis for everything. We did a lot of stuff for SEGA; actually, a lot of the early SEGA stuff is still availabe on PS3 and PSP.
We always wanted to go into game development–
SA: –but we also started making our own original themes around that time as well instead of waiting for someone to hire us.
MA: That’s something that still needs a lot of work.
SA: Just the theme market, honestly, was trash — it’s gotten a little bit better I think. It was always like, “Why not us? We can do our own game.”
DS: Truant Pixel did just announce a new game. I’ve seen natural progression with Truant Pixel going from these stunning dynamic themes to VEV: Viva Ex Vivo, which was your previous game.
Your new title — Akash: Path of the Five — seems a little out of left field. Can you explain where that inspiration came from?
SA: I’m a big fan of otome games, and I think it was around 2015ish that I had run out of them to play. Initially I was playing BioWare games and I ran out of those. My friend said “Hey! If you like these romance, character-driven games you should play this game Sweet Fuse: At Your Side,” which was an old PSP otome game
There’s not a lot of otome that get localized in the States, so I was kinda like “…well, I would really like another one and there aren’t any.” And also there are certain times where I feel like I can’t identify with the characters and themes so I thought “Why don’t I just make my own?”
So I’ve been kind of working on it secretly — I didn’t even bring it to our team until the middle of last year. But they were very supportive, even though Maher and Ian don’t play these games at all. They kinda could see that there is an opportunity here.
I feel like a lot of other people have the same thought that I did, because there are so many otome that are either in development or coming out this year, but I feel hopeful that ours is unique and different.
Another thing about our company is that we are making games that we want to make so our next project we are working on something else as well. It’s just all over the map — you’re not going to see a bunch of different VEV type games. Or we’re not going to just be doing visual novels. We are going to do do what we want to do.
DS: Oh, so you already have another thing in the works?
SA: Oh yeah — yeah.
MA: Can I talk about VEV for just a minute?
DS: Go for it.
MA: I feel like nobody knows this, but VEV was made on a budget of $2500. It was kind of crazy to us because it was the first time we were doing game development. We were thinking, “let’s not only make this really quirky, weird game that’s heavy in science and math and stuff like , but let’s also make it a PlayStation VR launch title.”
The choice was kind of insane. I’ll be honest with you, for a first time developer with no budget to speak of it was insanity. There are stories about indies that spend their days wiling on a code, and for us we all had full time jobs that are outside the realm of the game industry.
VEV was something really non-traditional and very much exploration on “what can we do in VR in a third-person perspective?” I’ll be honest with you, the original game we proposed was very traditional. And something of that is going to be coming later — not going to get too much into it. But then we took this alternate route because we wanted to take something that we could develop on a shorter timeframe and have something for VR.
Whats funny though is all the lessons learned from that we are incorporating into this. And what’s also ironic is that I would watch Souha play these otome games and I have some basic familiarity with dating sims and visual novels, and stuff like that–
SA: –and anime tropes and things like that.
MA: I used to read choose your own adventure books when I was a kid and I loved those. It was very much like that. And then you have relationship meters and how interacting with different characters at different times would yield different results. It was very obvious from the start of this how on the surface, the visuals are very nice. The rest of it was fairly simple. The backdrops are usually quite static. There’s a lot of re-using of the same backgrounds — there’s not a lot of variability.
Where as the writing is obviously the main draw, it always felt like they were cutting corners elsewhere. And maybe that’s in line with the budget they had including the writing and the testing — it might have to fall by the wayside.
When Souha brought this to us saying, “Why don’t we make one of these?” we kind of realized that this was an opportunity to explore areas of this genre which have not really been explored.”
DS: It is obviously distinct — if you go check out the 4K trailer that just went up — it’s a much more dynamic looking game and I do think that fills a void that a lot of VNs leave open.
Speaking of otome style games, we’ve seen a bit of a surge in the mainstream view with games like Hatoful Boyfriend. Even still, it seems like a hard game to sell to casual gamers who haven’t tried the genre out — that seem to be mostly male. What is your pitch to those gamers?
SA: I feel like there’s a lot of people who would like these games that don’t know that they would like these games. You look at the response to BioWare game — specifically the romance, those character driven interactions. I personally used to be put off by the whole romance thing. I feel like it might just be a marketing issue but I feel like the demo is there…
Some men will enjoy this too — I won’t say everybody, but I certainly have a large amount of male friends who looked at it and thought it was great. I’m not going into this with the notion of it selling 300,000 copies or anything like that. My hope is just to provide something for people who are like me, who are tired of the same old thing. But also I really do feel like this market is bigger than it appears — people may just not know that this is their thing yet.
DS: I think that’s a great way to look at game development.
I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve seen a bit of the story for Akash. Where are you drawing inspiration for this game? I was getting a little bit of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” feeling?
SA: Yeah, and that scares me — I’ve never seen it. And I generally know what it is, and I was trying to stay away from certain things. Like, there are fighting scenes and I didn’t want them to have tai chi poses because I thought people would say “Ohhhh, this is just like Avatar.” But I do understand that no amount of explanation on my part is going to make people think otherwise.
MA: So I’m kind of taking the role of art director for this game, so we have an artist named Vanna Lee. We spotlighted her because her artwork has a very distinct style and her background helped.
SA: The game is authentic to our experiences. We’re not an anime game
MA: We’re using our own background a little bit to build some of the world. At the same time, we are looking at cues from some Eastern cultures as well.
SA: We mean in just about every respect — we’re not giving you anime-style. The characters are at school, but not in a Japanese-style school.
I feel like a mistake that a lot of Western-developed otome games make is that they are trying to give you an experience that they might not necessarily authentically understand. So you have people with Japanese names in a Japanese highschool and they are eating ramen and it’s all a little bit off.
I feel like we’re a Western game and we should try and stand in that context. I love Japanese style games, I love Japanese culture — I just feel like it would be weird if we were trying to do. You can see the influence, certainly. It’s just not the experience we are trying to give.
MA: Vanna has her own art style and we tailored the game around that, rather than telling her “Can you draw more like this?”
SA: So like a semii-realistic painted game.
DS: If we are talking about otome, it isn’t 100% the most popular genre out there. If you, as a fan and developer of games in the genre, were recommending entry point games for people to get in on it, what are the absolute recommendations?
SA: Sure. I always recommend Sweet Fuse even though it’s kind of old by now, just because it is soooo good. It is really engaging; if you’re not super big on romance, the story itself really keeps you going.
If you are coming first and foremost for romance, on a surface level the boys are not the most beautiful. They are great characters, but if you look at the artwork and their designs compared to Hakuoki which is a more traditional shonin type character who may not do much for you. But I urge everyone to just try it.
Actually, Mystic Messenger is great also, but the free-to-play thing makes it a bit harder to recommend. It’s super super engaging as well.
DS: Switching over to Truant Pixel at large, is it within your company’s mission statement to always be targeting the latest innovation in the console? It seems like you guys are always speaking to the latest thing out?
For instance we saw VEV come out with the intention of it being made for the then newly announced PlayStation VR.
MA: Absolutely, we were developing it for PlayStation VR from the beginning, honestly.
SA: You can’t tell because we released it before PlayStation VR came out, but we had always designed it with that in mind.
DS: Right, and Akash: Path of the Five taking on the highlights of PlayStation 4 Pro like 4K resolution and UHD. So is that what you guys as a studio are aiming to do, or was that almost unintentional?
SA: It’s not like it was part of our mission statement as a studio but a.) we are very into tech and b.) I feel like when you are one of the first to jump on a new technology, for a small company like us, you will tend to get more eyes on your project.
So it just helps us. Maybe if we were a BioWare we could just sit back and do whatever we wanted to do but for us it’s a fun challenge.
MA: Lou, I would tell you when we started doing this project late last year — gathering our assets and things like — I don’t think we initially imagined taking as much advantage from PlayStation 4 Pro. But when working with our artists, when I would work on the backgrounds, out native format is 8K in terms of drawing. It’s like “Wow! Not only does PlayStation 4 Pro but also the Scorpio and PC support much much higher resolutions.”
Unlike VEV which we had to target 90 FPS locked (so our performance target kind of dipped), this is a case where our artwork sets the stage. And we realized that this platform is able to display our artwork and it looks amazing.
We are using 3D elements of the textures are painted, and then we are using filter effects and custom shaders to get this watercolor look so that it blends with the characters in the foregrounds.
We took that and thought, “We could really do this in high-resolution on this platform and at the same time we don’t have to sacrafice quality on the standard PlayStation 4 either.” So I guess it’s just luck.
SA: But we do seek them out. If we see an opportunity like that, we could develop something specifically for it.
MA: It’s also like HoloLens — we all turned to each other and said, I have an idea for this. We are just biding our time.
DS: Speaking to that, is there any reason you are going for solely PlayStation at the moment? Are you planning on going to PC or Xbox?
MA: Well — my answer to that is we’re registered developers with Microsoft and Nintendo.
DS: And Nintendo?
DS: Huh — well I’ve got to ask. Do you have anything in the works for Nintendo Switch?
MA: We have no comments at this time. We have a lot of things we are working on simultaneously. Even though we are really small, it is one. The other project we have is fairly far along, but we’re not willing to announce it yet because we are still working on certain elements.
But anyway, we are registered developers for both.
SA: We’re certainly not ruling anything out — it just has not happened that way. And, you know, Xbox requires a little more work. Since this is our first game with an actual budget, things like extra artwork or story or voice acting all cost more money. So I would not at all rule it out, and I would love to do it. But we would have to see.
DS: Now, you mentioned we are creating VEV while you had day jobs. Is Truant Pixel your full time job now?
SA: It only is for me. I was an attorney, and I resigned from the active practices — I still have my license and I’m our in house counsel — but Maher and Ian are both working their day jobs.
MA: I have a 84 hours week, and I’m still technically “at work.”
SA: We really recognize that the gaming industry is so volatile. You can be doing great right now, and then in a couple months it’s horrible. We can afford for me to work it, but we’re not going to put all our eggs in one basket at this time.
DS: That just fiscally makes sense–
SA: –we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been happy with how things are going.
MA: The one thing we sacrifice the most is free time.
SA: I’m still on Chapter 3 of Final Fantasy XV, and I haven’t played a game for more than two hours.
MA: I played two hours of The Last Guardian.
SA: But I recognize we are very lucky to be living our dreams making games, so we are very lucky.
DS: I’ve known of Truant Pixel for a while, even when you were only first starting making themes , mostly because you tend to do your own PR and outreach. I’ve seen you on forums like NeoGAF discussing things. Do you think that is a very important part to what makes you all Truant Pixel?
SA: Absolutely. It’s not because we have some sort of commitment to authenticity. We’re not a big company, we don’t have money for PR people.
But I will say people react much better to these things. For example, if people are calling us idiots online and Maher comes in and talks to them, their tone always changes instantly. I feel like people speak to you and perceive it a little bit differently when you are real people reading and working on things — not just a faceless studio.
MA: We don’t have any targeted concerted effort to be on forums or something.
SA: I’m on NeoGAF because that’s where I hang out!
MA: We’re also on Disqus and DualShockers in the comments section — we have our YouTube channel. It’s just I like to get feedback, I like to know what people think.
DS: I think you guys are the only developers, in my 5 years working in game journalism, who — after I wrote a review of the game — came on and responded to each criticism in a thoughtful and meaningful way.
SA: Well we appreciated that. The thing with DualShockers’ reviews specifically– when we released the first version of VEV, we got dragged down by some outlets. Some people were just looking to be as excitedly negative as they could be.
MA: One of the first reviews we had, the reviewer only played it for 15 minutes. Honestly, we don’t have an issue with not finishing a game — sometimes you pick up a game and you play it and it’s not your thing. I’ve been there.
But if your duty is to form an opinion — and you are expected to have an informed opinion — even if it’s negative, as long as it’s informed it’s valid.
DualShockers’ review was completely on point — there were some areas where you get into a developer echo chamber and miss certain flaws. But we are aware of that. We’d get some of these reviews back and some of them were average, some were less positive towards our game, but they took the time to play it and we though their critiques were really valuable. So we’re grateful for that — we’re grateful someone spent time with their game, even if they didn’t like it.
SA: I’d like to think all three of us here are fair minded people. So if you are coming to us with a critique, as long as there is respect in their approach that is all that mattered. Even if we disagreed. We’re still going to listen to what you have to say.
But if you are coming at it like “This sucks, this is the worst game on PlayStation!” you may have valid points but we frankly don’t want to discuss it with you.
MA: We definitely incorporated a lot of feedback, especially from DualShockers’ review, into changes we made into VEV‘s VR version because it was so helpful.
SA: So we will be listening to what people have to say.
DS: Are you planning on sticking to games only from now on, or are you still developing themes?
MA: We do a lot of contract work. We’ve been doing things for 505, and a lot of things haven’t been released or announced yet. We did contract work for Enhance Games for REZ-
SA: –that was a career highlight.
MA: But in the process of doing all this stuff, the more exposure and the more experience I had, the more I’ve been digging into the development environment for these things. We’ve figured out ways that the next batch are showcases to get people excited about what the PlayStation 4 Pro can do.
We figured out custom ways to do particle effects and smoke effects and new types of lighting effects.
In the Akash: Path of the Fives trailer you noted how you got some bigger names for the project. What are some of the career highlights?
SA: It’s going to be easier just to list them out for you:
- Todd Haberkorn: Fairy Tail – Natsu Dragneel, Fire Emblem Awakening – Morgan
- Vic Mignona: Fullmetal Alchemist – Edward Elric, RWBY – Qrow Branwen,
- Andrew Love: My Love Story – Takeo Gouda, Clannad After Story – Akio Furukawa
- SungWon Cho: Apotheon – Zeus, Spirit Parade – Shuye
- Chris Patton: Diabolik Lovers, More Blood – Ayato Sakamaki, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Greed
- Brandon McInnis: Danganronpa 3: The end of Hope’s Peak High School – Sohnosuke Izayoi, Black Butler: Book of Murder – Patrick Phelps.