There was one game that completely caught my attention in the lead-up to Melbourne’s massive gaming convention, PAX Australia: Hollow Knight, a gorgeously atmospheric action-adventure platformer with a healthy dose of challenge.
Hollow Knight is being developed by Team Cherry, an indie company based in Adelaide made up of Ari Gibson, William Pellen, and David Kazi, with a release planned for the first half of 2016.
Set in a bug-infested cavern system below an eerily silent village, Hollow Knight is filled with all kinds of strange creatures and wonderful sights. I’ve always been a sucker for platformers with fascinating worldbuilding that you can explore for hours, and from what I’ve played of the Hollow Knight beta, it seems to be shaping up to be exactly that. Though the gameplay can be difficult, it never feels punishing.
I had the opportunity at PAX Aus to interview Willaim Pellen and ask him a few questions about Hollow Knight, influences, Kickstarter, and taking the leap to full time game dev.
What was the original pitch for this game?
Our pitch for it? Basically it’s an action-adventure game, 2D. You kind of explore through an underground kingdom that’s full of insects. It used to be a really nice place, but now it’s been like, kind of cleared out by a plague.
You just kind of go through and you fight a bunch of really weird monsters, you meet a bunch of really weird bugs, and you go on a bunch of really weird adventures.
Any particular reason why bugs? Or that’s just kinda where it went?
I don’t know. Why—why did we do bugs? Oh, we had a game jam game that starred this character, and it was like, insect themed. I don’t remember why, I think insects are just kinda cool.
There’s a lot of stuff you can do with insects as well. They kinda lead you to a lot of different ideas cause there’s so many insects and they’re all so weird, so there’s a lot of stuff you can do with it. There’s not a lot of stuff that, you know, is insect themed, so it seemed like a pretty nice angle to play around with.
Do you like bugs. Like, real bugs?
Eh, they’re alright, you know. I tend to keep like, a meter between me and the bugs.
Yeah, I think that’s fair. Especially in Australia!
I got the Steam key for the beta, and I’ve been playing that a little bit.
It’s quite a challenging game. Like, it’s not hard in a bad way, but there’s definitely an amount of challenge to it. Was that on purpose?
Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. I mean the idea is that we want—we don’t want it specifically to be hard, we want it to be engaging, so I guess part of that is making sure that you can’t just autopilot through. You actually have to pay attention to what you’re doing.
So the game is kind of built around the idea that, yeah, it’s tricky, but if you’re paying attention or if you persevere—you know, you keep playing, you start to learn, you get better at it, and you can always get your way through eventually.
I kind of noticed that playing through a couple times, and I would be like, “Oh, I know what’s gonna happen here,” so I could get past it. How hard was it, and how much time did it take to balance the difficulty?
It’s tricky. I don’t know. It’s hard because everything else takes so long, a lot of it is kind of just intuition. You don’t have heaps of time to iterate it a lot. But I mean, we do watch a lot—we watch the way people play.
Like we had this game at AVCon, which is the Adelaide—because we’re from South Australia—video game [and anime] convention and we watched the way people played that, and they did pretty well. But uh, that version was actually harder than this one, so we actually took a look at where all the bottlenecks were, you know, what did people not quite understand the first time? We just watch the way people play and make adjustments as you go.
That’s really cool. What would you say was your favourite mechanic to implement in the game?
In this game?
I really like bouncing off of enemies’ heads. Cause originally your guy could only attack left or right, and because we made all these flying enemies we were like, “Oh, we’re gonna have to be able to attack up and down.” And then we thought it would be fun if when you attack an enemy downwards in the air, you bounce off them. It’s a little touch, but it’s so much fun to bounce off things.
I didn’t even notice you could do that!
Yeah, it’s a secret. Well, you never actually need to do it. Like, you can use it to get a few secrets, but I found working on other games that there’s something about bouncing off of things that is just a lot of fun. (Laughs)
What other games have you worked on?
I’ve just been working on my own stuff before this. I made and released one other game.
It was a game where you swim around as a goldfish. It’s uh, it’s a lot mellower than this one. Though actually still pretty hard. And a few jam games as well.
Because [Hollow Knight] was—was this a Ludum Dare one?
No this was—hmm, I can’t remember if it was. With this game I think it was a Global Game Jam, and the theme was “beneath the surface.” I wasn’t gonna do it because I couldn’t be bothered, cause I’m really lazy, and then Ari was sort of sad about it, and he rang me the next day like, “Aw man, have you seen the theme? Beneath the surface! So good, buddy, come on!” And I was like, “Ehhhh.”
So we started doing it, not as part of the jam cause we didn’t have time and we missed it, but just started doing this just for fun in our own time using that theme, and then it kind of grew. So it was like kind of a semi-jam game.
So is this the first game with Team Cherry?
Yup, yup, for sure. Well apart from our two jam games. That’s how we got our name, because our first one, our first jam game is called Hungry Knight, and it’s [Hollow Knight’s protagonist] except he wasn’t hollow, he was hungry because he walked around eating cherries, so that’s where the name came from.
That’s really cute! Do you guys have plans for other games after this already, or are you just focusing on this?
Not like plans plans. We’ve got ideas, but no plans. I mean, the hope is if we do well with this, to continue making stuff for sure so we’re banking up a bunch of ideas. Basically just playing old NES games to decide which one we’re gonna rip off next.
That’s something I love about Hollow Knight, is it’s got kind of that old school feeling to it. It’s very older platform-like, but it still looks modern and new.
It’s dressed up nicely, but at its core, yeah, it’s pretty simple. It uses a lot of these kinda simple but effective old school techniques and stuff, like the movement is really snappy, that type of thing.
Have there been any games in particular that have influenced the way you made this?
Yeah, we mention a few a lot. Like, Zelda II we always say, Faxanadu is a game on the NES. It’s in the same style as like, 2D action platformers that we used to play as kids. Newer stuff like Metroid and Castlevania kind of affected the way we think about the world, the way it’s put together. Probably a bit of Dark Souls in there as well.
I can see that.
A lot of people say that actually, yeah. It’s funny, because a lot of the people who play it who maybe aren’t familiar with like, older games like Metroid and stuff—because I mean that’s what we think of as primary influences—but what we get a lot from people is, “Oh yeah, it’s like 2D Dark Souls. It’s like Dark Souls with bugs.” So obviously even though we never even mention it to people most of the time, it shines through.
I was kind of thinking that myself, because of the way that you learn from making mistakes, it has a very similar kind of style.
It’s funny, ‘cause that is primarily like—that is an old school thing. So that’s where we get it from. But I guess a lot of people, their main exposure to that kind of style is from Dark Souls, so that’s why they kind of see that.
So what’s a normal work day like for you guys?
Uh, I think I wake up last because I’m lazy. Dave’s already been there for like, two hours by the time I get into the office. (Laughs) Yeah, we got an office in Adelaide. We normally just have a pretty quick stand up at the start and say what we’re working on and then get to it.
I’m pretty lucky actually cause I work on a lot of different things throughout the year. I’m sort of like the design lead but I do a lot of coding, like right now I’m doing all the enemies. Making all the AI, how they move and stuff, call Ari over if I’ve done something particularly funny.
And do you have any advice for people for Kickstarting games?
Yeah, we get asked that. I feel like I don’t have much that’s useful to say. I mean, make sure you’ve got a fair amount of stuff to show off. Like, a lot of Kickstarters you see it’s kind of vague, like it’s just concepts stuff, and their pitch video is just them talking with a few concept arts floating over their heads or whatever.
By the time we did our Kickstarter, we’d been working on it for like, four months? Five months, maybe? So we had a prototype game, we had gameplay videos of us actually playing the game so people could see that it was actually a thing that existed by that point. Constantly updating from the Kickstarter as well, engaging with everyone, trying to get everyone excited, giving out new bits of information. That type of stuff.
You guys work on this full time now?
Yup, yeah. So it’s me, Ari and Dave who are working full time. We’ve got Chris, our composer, over there. We’ve also got Nate around, an intern who’s been helping us out.
At what point did you realise you could make the jump to full time? Was it the Kickstarter that did it?
Yeah, it’s thanks to the Kickstarter. By that time we’d been working on it a bit and I suggested maybe doing a Kickstarter to Ari. We worked out how much we’d need. It’s been fun.
You can pre-order Hollow Knight now, with bonus bundles including the soundtrack, beta access, and a digital copy of the prequel comic.