Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Kevin Beimers: Mona Lisa Stealing a Smile

September 13, 2017 — by David Radd


Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Kevin Beimers: Mona Lisa Stealing a Smile

September 13, 2017 — by David Radd

Kevin Beimers fulfills a lot of roles for Italic Pig: writer, editor, producer, director, animator, artist, designer, developer, coder, and storyteller. He has helped create Schrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark with Italic Pig. He noted that what he learned from this was: “the weirder the idea, the less likely it is to be stolen”, which led to the development of Mona Lisa, a game where the titular character is a Renaissance robot art thief.

“I’ve always found Da Vinci fascinating – I think everybody does at least a little bit. I mean, here’s a guy so far ahead of his time, with buckets of ideas, talented in every facet of art and science from inventing to sculpting to painting to engineering to botany to anatomy… and that’s just from the codices that he let everybody have a peek at,” said Kevin. “The thing is, for every time he dropped a bomb on human invention – ‘Here you go, folks: I call it a helicopter. That’ll blow your mind.’ – how many of his ideas never saw another human face? I would imagine that for every codex he felt comfortable putting on display, there’s another 10 back in his basement he never told anybody about, and more than a few that he probably had to set fire to.”

“Then you’ve got the mystery of Mona Lisa: Who was she? Oh sure, historians think they’ve got her pinned down as either the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant, his secret same-sex lover, or Da Vinci himself. In other words, nobody’s got a clue,” he continued. “I asked the question: what could be the culmination of Leo’s work? All of his sketches of engineering works, all of his sketches of the human body, what if Mona Lisa the Painting was not his greatest creation, but Mona Lisa the Girl?

“So, years ago I wrote a treatment for a story beginning with Da Vinci inventing a springpunk automaton, then added a bit of rocket fuel to it with a heavy twist of sarcasm, which inevitably built and built until the fate of entire world was at stake: Dan Brown meets Terry Pratchett. Once I got into the games industry, and started to have fun with the possibilities of narrative driven games like Hector: Badge of Carnage and Schrödinger’s Cat, it seemed like as good a place as any to unleash Mona Lisa.”

Northern Ireland Support

Italic Pig has become one of the most acclaimed indie studios from Northern Ireland (NI). Kevin says that Northern Irish games development community wanted to see them succeed.

“It’s such a collaborative community – we share people, resources, expertise, talent, sometimes even office space. Besides Italic Pig’s own two projects, I’ve worked on scriptwriting and character development with just about everyone else around here at some point. We’ve got no AAAs here: everything is indie-sized and growing. In truth, you can easily pack all of our “big players” into a medium sized pub, which means that when one of us releases a game, we all get behind it. A NI game release is a win for the region. I’m just happy to be someone who is able contribute to the NI gamedev wall of fame from time to time.”

Speaking of support, Creative Europe Desk U.K. and Northern Ireland Screen have helped Italic Pig in their recent projects. “After completing Schrödinger’s Cat, Italic Pig had the enviable status of being a company that had released a successful game on PC and console, which opened up many opportunities for future prospects,” said Kevin. “Being eligible for Creative Europe funding was an opportunity not to be missed, and we were thrilled to have been accepted.”

“I remember speaking to another successful candidate of CEDUK funds (Creative Europe Desk UK) that year, who quipped, ‘Yes, but now you need to match those funds.’ Luckily, living and working in NI in the entertainment sector opens up excellent possibilities from Northern Ireland Screen, who match development and production funding on approved projects to a considerable amount, which meant we could get started immediately,” he continued. “It’s easy for me to say that if neither of these organizations had taken a risk with us, Mona Lisa never would have been made. Furthermore, the funding we received gave us a chance to experiment, which resulted in the arcade-painting engine we’ve created (internally called the BobRossatron, but don’t spread that around).”

Speed painting wasn’t always a popular idea among investors but Italic Pig was able to develop it and make it into a great mechanic and a draw toward the game.

“When the application was only words on paper, pitching a game that combined stealth platforming with speed painting, most people said ‘Speed painting doesn’t sound fun. Just make a stealth platformer,’ and without the freedom provided by the funds above, we probably would have. However, having the time to create and play with the paint mechanic opened up a whole new world of possibilities, and the paint mechanic is now what’s drawing everyone’s attention,” he noted. “We couldn’t have achieved an engine or a reaction like that without support from the funds above.”

Speed Painting

Kevin said that Mona Lisa was pitched as “stealth platforming meets speed painting”, though they originally were vague about how either of them were going to work in the original pitch. While a lot of advice was to drop the painting aspect, Italic Pig went straight ahead with the painting engine for the first six months of development.

“Once we had the early paint engine, it turned a lot of heads and got a lot of laughs, we knew we were onto something. When we said, ‘and there’s going to be a platformer portion too!’ everyone said, to drop the PLATFORMER and focus on the PAINTING. Imagine that,” said a bemused Kevin. “Damn the advice again: now we had to prove ourselves with the platformer, which had taken a backseat through all of this. With the paint game going strong, we diverted time and funds off down the second path to create an innovative new method of touchscreen platforming. And boy did we come close.

“Close but no cigar, I’m afraid. We created something very cool – a platformer that relied on the predictive interpretation of player-drawn pathfinding. In theory it was exciting, and we chased that rabbit for a long time – too long – before realizing that no matter how close we got, it would still clash with the simple and much-loved paint mechanic, and create a dissonance that would pull the core idea backwards. The game didn’t need it, and it had to go.”

“The loss of the platformer was painful because of the time and effort invested in it. But I take heart knowing that the R&D we did to make it will surface in a future project one day. Nothing ever goes in the bin, only on the shelf,” he noted.

An Amusing Concept

Nothing ever goes in the bin, only on the shelf. – Kevin Beimers

Given the premise of Mona Lisa there are multiple opportunities for humorous situations in the game. It was obvious in talking to Kevin how excited he was about the premise of Mona Lisa, and how the game is shaping up.

“The best thing about explaining this game to others for the first time is that the concept itself is such a hook – Mona Lisa is a Renaissance robot created by Da Vinci to steal all the best paintings in the area for himself,” said Kevin. “As a sentence, it gets people very excited. The thing is, that’s not even the twist, that’s the inciting action. We know that that’s where the story BEGINS, and it gets deeper from there.”

“I don’t want to give away anything specific, but I will say that a trip to Wikipedia wouldn’t go amiss. The game is packed with parody art based on real pieces, and the cast of characters is loaded up with real people from the time period (with heavy measure of poetic license, give or take a hundred years),” he added. “Like Schrödinger’s Cat, the game works just fine on a surface level, but there’s a whole second level of 99th percentile humor. We’re working on cramming the story arc with as many references to actual historical events, people and masterpieces as we can, so if you really want to know what’s going on, a crash course in art history might add a few laughs.”

Ugly, Imperfect, Grumpy Cartoons

Being a title named Mona Lisa, having a particular art style is an important thing to consider. When it comes to how the art style was established, Kevin noted that being able to draw better with a mouse than a pencil was a factor.

“When I do character creation, I usually start with a blank page in Illustrator, go to town with the smooth curves and see what comes out the other end. I never took an art class, and never learned the ‘proper’ techniques for drawing the human form, which means that most things I make are purposely incorrect, and usually a bit unattractive,” noted Kevin. “I love ugly, imperfect, grumpy cartoons, with missing teeth and offset ears and huge eyebrows and one eye floating out the side of the head. Working directly in Illustrator allows me the freedom to create and bend and stretch without worrying about junk lines and residue from poorly erased pencil. Usually at some point during the character creation process I’ll say, ‘haha that’s so stupid it’s perfect.’ Mona Lisa is my first time working with humans.”

“As for Mona Lisa backgrounds, I can’t take any credit for those. I set out looking for a sketchy, perspectiveless, ‘un-Disney’ background design, reminiscent of Cartoon Saloon’s unique style of Secret of Kells or Song of the Sea,” he added. “It just so happened that the start of this project coincided with the end of someone else’s in NI, and Ruby joined the team. Ruby has done an unmatchable job following my vague and nebulous art direction advice, and created the wacky beauty that you see in all parts of Mona Lisa.”

Make a Game You’d Want to Play

Italic Pig has achieved a high level of success for an indie developer. When asked about how other developers can reach a similar level of success, Kevin suggested they make games they want to play and refine it to the point that you would pay for it if someone else made it.

“There are trends and stats and metrics that will tell you what the world is buying right now, and that’s great; soak up as much of that as you can. But remember: the data is reactionary. They report on what came before, up until now, and from that make a guess at the future,” details Kevin. “Trend reports are like weather reports. Warehouses full of computer models can do their best to estimate how the past points to the future, but every now and then a freak storm or a solar flare comes along and knocks over all the applecarts. Nobody saw Angry Birds coming, and no amount of data mining could have every told you that ‘flinging birds at pigs with a slingshot’ was going to be the next freak storm. But, when it did, it changed the landscape, and the data had to readjust itself.”

“As an indie, you have more opportunity than anyone to change the data. We’re allowed to try weird things out and see what happens; the big guys aren’t. Big AAAs need to play it safe and create predictable models. Their huge piles of money may seem attractive at first, but they’re almost certainly restrictive in terms of experimentation. That’s why when I hit GDC or EGX or any other big consumer event, you’ll almost certainly find me in the indie section, because that’s where all the cool stuff is happening,” he continued. “Believe in what you’re doing, no matter how weird or off-track. If you want to play it, someone else out there will want to too, and you may end up being the next freak storm.”

Subverting Expectations

Kevin says the core of Italic Pig’s inspiration is: “Yeah, but what if it wasn’t?”. He loves turning regular expectations upside down and running with it.

“Subverting expectation is important to me as well – I love it when a gamechanger hits the App Store, and immediately hate it when it’s followed up by a horde of clones trying to piggyback off the new success. Success is inspiring, but a fleet of identical games with a re-skin over top is the opposite of inspiring,” said Kevin. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I was last year to receive a rejection letter from a well-known publisher who turned me down because they ‘were only looking for Match-3s.’ So when it comes to the story, the mechanic, the genre… the first nudge toward something new and fun is usually thanks to a funny thought where a common expectation is turned upside down.”

“Our focus is story. Character-driven sarcastically epic narrative adventures. We love snappy dialogue, well rounded characters, logically wacky story arcs culminating with too-clever-for-our-own-good climaxes,” he added. “More often than not the story comes first, and the genre and gameplay is chosen afterward. It’s a bit like writing the lyrics before the song, which we know is a bit backwards, but it means that the story gets the show it deserves, rather than a mechanic receiving a tacked-on story at the end.”

The Meatloaf of Indies

Kevin notes that despite everyone in Italic Pig being in the same area, they’re a virtual studio. Everything happens through Slack and Dropbox, running on a system of trust and talent.

“Our lead artist Ruby is from Belfast, lead programmer Noel is from Coleraine, and I’m living in Bangor, so when we feel the need we can all descend upon a café and talk about next steps,” Kevin said. “But then, Dave (paint engine developer) is a Scotsman living in Cambodia, my sound and music guys (Stafford and John) are from U.K. mainland somewhere, and we’ve had concept artists and developers from France, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Florida and California at times.”

“I’d say things have worked out pretty well so far – we’re close enough to make the effort, far enough to make excuses,” he continued. “I’d say by not having an office we lose a bit of banter and idea-bashing (by which I mean bashing an idea around until it’s refined by everyone’s input), but it also allows everyone to make their own comfortable hours. Or in some cases, uncomfortable; Noel is famous for the 40-hour day: 24 hours of coding followed by 16 hours of sleep. Not my cup of tea, but if it works for him, hey, go for it.”

Kevin jokes that if Italic Pig were singers, they’d be Meatloaf. “We punch above our weight, sing a little out of our comfortable range, create irreverently epic ballads with cumbersome titles packed with cheeky and cheesy wordplay,” Kevin said. “And yeah, we’re not for everybody, and we’re totally okay with that. In fact, if you don’t like us, that’s your fault, not ours.”

Banana Eating Advice

On the monetization side of things, Kevin says Italic Pig has been very much into premium. He says that comes from the need for a good story to have a satisfying ending.

“By definition, if you’ve created a free-to-play story with an ending, well, you’ve just plain done it wrong,” Kevin said, adding, “Mona Lisa is our first venture into the treacherous world of free-to-play, and it’s been an interesting experiment creating a story arc that works with the business model. I’ll reserve judgment on which I like better until after launch.”

Parody painting from Mona Lisa

After joking that Kevin takes the lead on projects, despite the fact that he “probably shouldn’t.” He noted that he had unlimited resources and time, “I would likely never release anything; I would spend the rest of my days conjuring whimsy in a nebulous roiling cauldron of wacky half-formed ideas, and never ride anything to completion. Ideas are the most fun when they’re not nailed down, and I’d probably spend most of my time knocking the legs out from under my own ideas. But I would have a damn fun time doing it.”

When asked what indie developers should never do, Kevin offered up this sagacious advice: “Never make eye contact while eating a banana.”

The art from Mona Lisa was featured at Casual Connect USA in Seattle in early August.


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.