Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Diego Sacchetti: Excising Your Demons Through Development

July 19, 2017 — by David Radd


Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Diego Sacchetti: Excising Your Demons Through Development

July 19, 2017 — by David Radd

Diego Sacchetti is the founder for Morbidware, developer for Ray Bibbia. The indie title was conceived from Global Game Jam Rome in 2015.

“At that time I was already making games for a living and I was working for a software house in Rome where I met Danjel Ricci. We got along really well as colleagues and since we both went to other Game Jams we decided to go and team together for the upcoming jam,” described Diego. “I remember we were so excited and we wanted to make some really cool game (it was my fifth time participating). We were expecting the usual vague theme just like past GGJs, a theme that could be interpreted in a variety of ways meaning a variety of design possibilities but instead that year the theme was a single precise word: Ritual. Disappointment, despair. What now? Let’s just make a game then, the first that comes to our mind, no more mind-blowing ideas, let’s just make a game and have fun.”

“So that’s where we started by taking a walk in the center of Rome, talking about random topics, never taking a look at the jam countdown,” he continued. “After a while I told Danjel, ‘What if we make a game about an exorcist? You must dodge bullets and type the formula at the same time’, and he was enthusiastic about the idea. The problem was another one: making comprehensible gameplay and a fun game out of this idea. Truth is from that moment ideas came flowing and we just made the prototype, easily. We slept, we ate, we didn’t smell, we had fun with the other jammers. In the end we weren’t expecting any result but when the time came for showcasing everyone was avidly playing our game, telling others and such. Everyone was having much more fun than we expected and when everyone voted for the fave game we ranked first! We were so happy and decided we could make a ‘real game’ out of it, some way.”

Ultimately though, Danjel didn’t have time to work on the project and left. “I was alone and was going to throw this prototype in the trash bin when Matteo Corradini dropped me a line,” Diego said. “He was really interested in making games, he saw a gameplay video of Ray Bibbia and asked me if by any chance there were some possibilities to make a game. Matteo doesn’t make games for a living but he is very passionate and a really good writer. Matteo is taking care of the story and the dialogue in Ray Bibbia, he’s primarily known for being part of a popular comic trio making short movies. I already knew him through his works before meeting for the first time. He was in love with the idea and suggested he could make a plot and a story and dialogues to give this game a proper ‘adventure’ taste like in the old times.

“That’s where we decided Ray Bibbia would feature a story and many adventure elements instead of being a simpler boss rush game. We started all over making a new design doc from scratch. We wrote things and took decisions for like 6 months,” he added. “I decided I would call Giuseppe Longo for the art: he’s one of the most skilled Italian pixel artists and was at the jam that year, so he saw this game from the very beginning and was really happy to join us. Everything was ready so we finally started developing.”

Bullet-Hell Issac

The Binding of Issac has become one of the quintessential indie titles to come out over the past few years, and Diego says that he thinks it’s one of the best games ever made, along with Doom and Super Metroid. Still, despite having spent hundreds of hours on the game, he claims The Binding of Issac didn’t really influence Ray Bibbia.

“Our game is inspired to old Cave Shooters like Dodonpachi and Mushihimesama, as well as typing games like the typing of the dead,” Diego added. “It’s a game about Christianity and demons but that’s not because I like Isaac’s setting but because I wanted to give meaning and strength to the choice of killing enemies with words. This idea suits wizards, and we have plenty of wizards in games, but it also suits exorcists, and I thought it could be much more interesting as a design choice to make you play as a priest, fighting evil with words.

“I think the reason I really like Isaac so much is because I can relate to the themes expressed: I went to convent school, grew up as a metalhead; do you a need to be a good christian to be a good man? Can you be a good and caring human being without believing? Luckily my mother wasn’t like Isaac’s. Ray Bibbia is about Christianity and demons but unlike in Isaac, the message in the end is different. This game is about the power of faith and symbols, the value of sin and forgiveness, a good man is not always a saint. Even if the game starts quite hilarious in the end we want to deliver some (hopefully meaningful) messages to our players.”

Ray Bibbia is fundamentally a bullet hell shooter crossed with a typing trainer. Diego says that all his games are classic genres with a twist. He pointed out Sunshine as an orbital platformer, Hardventure into the Duat was a platformer where you can only jump, and Nether Runner is an upgrade game mixing runner and shmup elements.

“For me, giving players something classic with a twist is the way we can take a modern look to old experiences to create new ones,” said Diego. “This specific mix was quite a sudden idea during the jam. Real problem was to make a funny and memorable game out of it. Everything is up to the visual/audio feedback you give to the player. Also you must keep in mind this is a game where players won’t stare at the screen all the time and that changes many things also for the classic shooter part. You must take care of timings and pauses to let players write words, you must remember players won’t only dodge but will need to stop and write and so on.

“Making a classic genre means you must follow rules created over the years, defined by the popularity of other games, somewhat it’s all happened before so you must just ‘take lessons’ and reproduce mechanics like you experienced in your life as a player. You have plenty of examples to follow. When you have a twisted gameplay like this you cannot rely completely on classic games, you have to define yourself the ‘best way’ to express something, and that’s the most challenging part. Don’t betray the classic part of your game so that anyone can easily relate to that part while defining the twist part to be in harmony with the rest of the experience.”

Going to Newgrounds

Global Game Jam Rome in 2015 was, of course, huge for Ray Bibbia. Following up on that, releasing the game on Kongregate and Newgrounds helped promote the game with a broader audience.

“That’s why we instantly made a web version to upload on Kong and NG (while ArmorGames doesn’t host prototypes),” said Diego. “I used to make browser games so I’m not completely new to this. We received enough positive feedback to understand our product was worth playing even for an international audience, that’s when I decided I would make a full game out of that prototype.”

Ray Bibbia has gone on to be nominated to Indie Prize Seattle 2017 by winning “Best Game” of the show at Codemotion Amsterdam. Diego says that the win was really unexpected.

“There were lots of beautiful projects in Amsterdam, we are so happy and grateful about the results, yet we must keep up to our players expectation, that’s the most important part now. Deliver a product that meets the expectations,” detailed Diego. “When making a game, the first months one is focused on making a product which is ‘good enough’ to get some attention, and if the game gets attention, from that point on, it’s the developer who must keep the game as good as promised. So it’s like you start working ON a game and end up working FOR a game. This will be our first time showing our project in the U.S. so we are really excited to see how it performs, we also think Indie Prize to be an important experience for us as a team that could create a number new possibilities for our game.”

Perseverance Through Adversity

While development can be a fun experience, it can also be filled with hardships. Diego said that the most painful experience of his life is somewhat linked to Ray Bibbia and he recalled the sad story for us.

“In 2016 I lost my mother after two years fighting with cancer,” said Diego. “This particular and rare and destructive form of cancer took her seven years before, she survived the first time thanks to the incredible work of some heroic doctors, she lived happily for five years when the cancer came back much more stronger than before. At the same time I had a relationship going on for 10 years, five years living together. I lived in hell for those two years, working all day and running to hospitals to stay with her, my father was unstoppable and I always had the fear that he could die trying to take take care of her, she was slowly dying and I really cannot express with these words how much I loved her. The bond between my parents was so strong, they were an example of true everlasting love. We tried all possible therapies, all over Italy.”

Then in summer, some days after my birthday my relationship finished and after four days I was holding my mother’s hand while she was dying, after three days in coma. I really cannot tell you how much she suffered, how much this destroyed me. I suddenly found myself without my past (my mother) and without a future (the girl I wanted to live my life with). The first day of my new life I was still, laying down on the couch, looking at the ceiling, drowning into depression when I just said NO. So I got up and started making things, doing new things, doing other things I never did in my life. I understood I had to remove all barriers, all beliefs and let my body do it’s job, live by the instinct, that was the only way to survive.”

“I was changing, I changed a lot, from day to night, and I hoped this giant flight in a new consciousness would have ended some day, I would be back to normal and I would survive. I did many many things I should regret, at some point I understood I lost all love for myself, but even those mistakes made me survive that huge pain, so I won’t regret anything. After much time living a chaotic life, without working anymore, making so many wrong things, I went to the Global Game Jam and this time I made a game that made everyone happy. I felt something different. Winning the Jam was the first ‘good’ achievement I got since my mother’s death. I can say Ray Bibbia saved me. I started working again, the chaos stopped, I started changing back to my old self,” Diego said. “Maybe I will never be the same as before, but in the end I survived, and I am whole again.”

Spiritually Tested

Diego indicates that he typically tests his games at all stages of development. He does it as soon as he can and builds different prototypes to test.

“If something doesn’t feel quite right or as expected, I start making changes, even big ones,” said Diego. “A developer should not be scared to make big changes to the product, because what you may feel like ‘is just not the best solution but that’s okay’ usually turns out to be much more worse from a user point of view, meaning disappointed players that lead to having made a bad game. Don’t fall in love with how you implement your ideas, be objective and listen to criticism.”

“Ray Bibbia brings the most interesting reactions because of its strange core mechanic,” he added of reactions. “I mean, you have to dodge (action, reflexes) and type (be focused, remember words) at the very same time. Usually players tell me that even if it’s a game about typing and dodging, the feeling while playing is not like typing nor dodging. It’s something different made from joining together those two aspects. The result is something unique and they usually start to try over and over again because it fells so basic (for the skills needed), yet so hard to master.”

Building a Scene

Diego says Morbidware generally has meetings to decide what direction to go. Still, ultimately after throwing ideas together, Diego makes the final decision on what they’re going to do.

“I always have a clear vision of my projects, so I give feedback on every aspect but I leave all the details in the hands of my teammates,” noted Diego. “I believe that if we all add something from our tastes and experience the final result is much better.

“We start by imagining ideas and situations, the story in Ray Bibbia is quite intricate. So we tell and describe the scenes over and over until we find the best possible way of telling that scene. Then we go deeper into the detail of the characters. I usually draw some sketches to use as a reference. Then we produce all assets and start building a scene. Now on the core gameplay part. I start making bullet patterns to create the entire fight with a boss and we start playing and testing the boss fight and the cut scenes before and after. Every boss must shoot pattern that reflect their personality, much like a signature. There are chaotic bosses who shoot in a random fashion lots of disorganized bullets and bosses who shoot precise geometric patterns and so on. We make all fixes and changes until we are all satisfied with the results. We usually have the most problems with the story itself and the way we are defining our characters through it. In the end we always come up with a solution that is better than everyone point of view.”

“We usually develop following the story, one level after another,” added Diego. “First comes the screenplay, then we create all graphics and animations, after that I start creating the boss fight and the cut scenes. Last comes the music. Any boss adds some new skill against Ray so we usually test a level once is finished. We use trello for our to do lists and Slack to communicate, Dropbox to keep our assets, the project is on git, anyone can checkout the project at any time and see the result as I make changes.”

Old School Experiences

Diego says that he creates games to have old school game experiences with good stories and more modernized sensibilities. Ultimately, he said he’d like to offer something unique to the medium of gaming as well.

“I think we need more 2D games, more old school action to the list and more pixels, especially more games made with heart,” said Diego. “I think there’s always room for good products made with heart and dedication, and I hope we can make a product that brings emotions to our players and tells them a good story, because those are the games that you remember the most.”

“Something that will be remembered for its uniqueness as an experience,” he continued. “I hope people enjoy my game and younger ones learn something out of the messages we want to deliver. If I think about kids playing my game, I really hope this game will be part of the things they will remember as adults, like many games inspired me when I was a kid. Games you love as a kid stay with you forever in some way. They are indeed part of growing up. We must pay special attention to this fact as developers. Our games can always end up being life changers for someone we don’t even know, we should keep this in mind when making games.

“Developing games is all about translating ideas into cold code and back into something emotional for the players. Even if we are talking of a process involving creativity in the end it’s still software development, so you must be well organized, must be capable of working in a team and meet deadlines even if games tend to have unpredictable gaps that can stop the production process for much time,” Diego described. “I usually work up to 10/12 hours a day between Ray Bibbia and clients projects. I don’t like giving strict time frames to my colleagues, I don’t need to work side by side. We just need to be on the same page anytime. Apart from that, you can work whenever you want, wherever you want, as long as you obtain the results needed and meet the deadline.”

On that point, there’s no physical location for Morbidware. “My colleagues work from their studio or house, the place they find more comfortable for working,” detailed Diego. “We are always in contact and I don’t think being physically in the same room at the same time would lead to much more benefits. I value results, not the production process. We are all different and everyone has his own ‘good productive environment’, this way anyone can do his best. On top of this me and Matteo meet twice a week to test levels and features.”

Museums to Mosh-Pits

Diego says that he gets inspiration from anything. He names things as disparate from movies to mosh-pits, from museums to getting drunk, from making love to suffering, from reading a book to staring at the flames in the fireplace.

“I see inspiration everywhere, just like I see shapes in the clouds and faces in everyday objects. I think that you must be a dreamer if you really want to make other people dream with your games,” said Diego. “Trying to make everyone see what you see.”

8-bit and 16-bit games helped inspire Ray Bibbia’s style. “I’m in love with pixel art, it’s the art style I grew up with, I like it because your mind completes the portrait of the character adding the info you miss in those few pixels, much like when you read a description in a book,” detailed Diego. “It’s not complete, and everyone fills the gaps from their experience, it makes for a much more personal result for the reader/player. Pixel art can give much more depth to characters thanks to all the missing details.”

While Ray Bibbia used exorcism, it’s not lacking in funny moments. “There are countless funny/witty moments in this game, even during the most dramatic and epic parts. One joke I like is about the name given to Ray’s bullets, the ones you create while typing an exorcism. Their name is Hollets from Holy Bullets and it’s an horrible name. When Ray explains this in the game the player usually thinks, ‘What kind of horrible name is that?’ and in the next line of the dialogue the character speaking will say ‘Hollets? What horrible name is that?’. It’s a funny moment for players because they usually have a reaction when they read that name and in the next line that thing is stated from the characters in the game.”

Four Dream Games

Morbidware has created games for mobile, browser and on Steam. Because of this, Diego says that they don’t focus on any specific platform.

“Same thing for the technology: I used to work with Unity, Cocos2d-X, Flash among other less known engines,” noted Diego. “Ray Bibbia is my first GameMaker game and I’m happy with the choice made. For the genre I can say I really love to make difficult action games: runners, shooters, platform games. I like to make difficult games because you’re filled with emotions when you beat them. I think that only 2D can give you really precise controls allowing for really precise designs.”

“The idea for this game is to sell it on digital platforms like Steam or GOG, we are looking for a publisher and after releasing a free demo on Itch.IO and GameJolt we’ll start contacting publishers in the hope to find a deal. Self publishing is an option too,” he added.

If Diego had larger resources, he says he wouldn’t just make one dream game, he’d make FOUR dream games! “Those four games are all MetroidVania with a twist. If I had unlimited time and resources I’d probably start making these games as a one man band, doing graphics, design, code, music, everything from start to finish, much like Cave Story or Axiom Verge,” detailed Diego. “Maybe you would expect me to say I would make a giant expanded version of Ray Bibbia but that’s not the case. Ray Bibbia is a project built for limited resources and time, and we won’t give up on any feature, simply because the game we want is a game we can create with the resources we have right now.”

Be Honest About Your Product Capabilities

When we asked for positive advice for indie developers, Diego said, “I could talk about how important is timing, how important are visual cues and feedback, how important is a well designed UI, but the very first things I’d say to anyone are much more based on personal skills than on coding or work skills in general. Start small. Be objective. Listen to criticism. Be humble and don’t be scared to change even 99 percent of your game if it’s not meeting the expectations. Hopefully one should understand before 99 percent that the game doesn’t work as it is.

“Make lots of prototypes and keep a clear vision of the final product. Technology is not important, choose the best engine for your specific project. Ray Bibbia for example is my first GameMaker game, I chose GameMaker among all other options because I knew what I needed for my project and after months of development I’m satisfied with the choice made,” he added. “Choose the tools you are most comfortable with. There’s no such thing as the right tool for every project.”

And what should indie developers never do? “Don’t start developing something you will never be able to really deliver to the people. I think disappointing your players is the worst thing you can do. At the same time don’t create unnecessary hype, don’t lie about your product capabilities,” Diego suggested.


David Radd

David Radd

David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.