Interview: Lyorah Studios Talk ‘The Girl Who Sold the World’

Lyorah Studios’ The Girl Who Sold the World is set to hit the App Store tomorrow, so I figured today would be the perfect time to publish my recent interview with Barbara and Art Gruszczyk, the husband and wife team behind this highly ambitious and unique audio-driven adventure game. It’s a fascinatingly in-depth conversation, and I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it!

Thanks so much for taking the time out of your undoubtedly hectic schedule for this interview. Let’s start by finding out a little more about Lyorah Studios. Where are you guys based, and how many make up your team?

Hi, thanks a lot for the opportunity to introduce our project to your FANtastic community.

In 2013, we decided to establish Lyorah Studios Ltd. in London, UK. We have no big names. We have no thrilling development background. YET.

At its core, there’s just the two of us, Barbara and Art. Both in our mid-thirties, a couple for over 16 years and parents to two beautiful teenage twin girls.

Depending on the projects we are working on, we always take the chance to collaborate with talents from all over the world. At the moment, there are six people (from three different countries) involved in the making of our current project The Girl Who Sold the World.

If success proves us right we would like to increase our team to ensure a more dynamic development of the upcoming chapters of TGWSTW.

What is Lyorah Studios’ mission statement as a company?

That’s an important question. If we had to put it in one sentence: We are an internet media company. We challenge standards to create game-changing experiences. Our goal is to develop meaningful projects which arouse passion and empathy.

Okay, that was three sentences. But these are not just empty phrases. This is us. This is our philosophy.

And it all started out with one simple word, Lyorah.

Lyorah is taken from the Hebrew language and means “my Light.”

In this fast paced world of ever changing trends and lacking empathy, we wanted to bring that sparkle of hope and light to the people again.

We designed a completely new social platform to envision to the crowd that there is more to a social network than just bragging about what or who you are. It’s a new generation of social networks containing innovative features and an entertainment part in the form of a mobile app.

Unfortunately, this project turned out to be too big and too complex for us at that time, so we had to put this one aside. But the idea of bringing people together and to make them care more for each other gave birth to Lyorah Studios and TGWSTW.

So, this is our attempt to make the world a better place.

Congratulations on your upcoming release, The Girl Who Sold the World. The trailer makes it look and sound like something very special indeed! For anyone who hasn’t seen that yet, would you mind providing a short synopsis of what the game is and what it’s about?

Thank you so much. It’s so exciting to hear that the idea of TGWSTW or the plot or even the title itself intrigued so many people already.

Basically you plug in your head phones, connect with the messenger called Skyler and there you are — in the middle of Frances Reeds’ journey.

She wakes up in a strange world she doesn’t understand — yet. She lost her memory, she lost her family — she lost everything. And you have the opportunity to accompany her in real-time, give her advices and make important decisions which are going to lead onto different paths.

You’ll have to be courageous to take away her fears. You’ll have to share your intellect to help her overcome obstacles and solve puzzles. You’ll have to show empathy to let your friendship grow.

And then, somewhere and sometime you and Frances are going to reveal the truth behind all the things that happened but didn’t make sense at all.

Audio-based adventure games are something of a rarity on iOS. (Off the top of my head, I can only think of Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre series and a couple of others.) What made you want to make one?

First of all, the love for — let’s call it audio related entertainment — has already settled in our hearts a long time ago. We both grew up in Germany and during our youth in the 90’s audio dramas were pretty popular. Back then they were recorded on those funny rectangular things called tapes, but anyway.

Nowadays most of us listen to audio books but this is something different. Audio dramas were/are so much more than that.

You could hear the acting and all those sounds like wind, riding a bike, running, fighting, hiding and many other moments of tension. All you had to do was to close your eyes and the movie was rolling.

And even today, in times of almost realistic graphics it’s not an exaggeration if we say: you can’t beat those graphics flickering in your head during your personal mental cinema.

It feels so real because it happens inside you — not on the screen.

But nevertheless, an audio drama still treated you as a passive listener who was “watching” the play from a distance.

We realized that if we make the canvas of sound more complete and combine it with interactive elements and puzzles then we could create a new experience of gaming. And smartphones which perform great as audio players would be just perfect for that type of entertainment.

And that’s when the idea of an AAG (Audio Adventure Game) was born.

In an AAG you would be an actor yourself. Not just a character but a likeable and trustful friend who would build a meaningful relationship to the protagonist over time. Someone who could impact the story, change its course and its ending.

We knew we had something special, something we would love to play ourselves and something that didn’t exist yet. Audio games like Papa Sangre or BlindSide had a completely different definition and conception of the game mechanics. We didn’t want to use sound for a direct navigation. It undoubtedly seems attractive in theory but it’s difficult to execute properly because you find yourself hitting against walls and other obstacles while trying to move from A to B.

Our approach was to let the player immerse in the fictitious world and not distract him from the story. Emotions and intellect were our keynotes instead of dexterity.

The second reason why we wanted to make an AAG was the fact that we actually were able to achieve that goal with the capabilities of a micro studio.

However, the road turned out to be rockier than we initially thought. At that time we just couldn’t know how hard we would have to work for a very long time.

How long has TGWSTW been in the works? And were there any particular challenges you faced during its development?

Well, that exciting process of creation started in February, 2016 with writing the first lines of Chapter 1 — The Loss and after almost 1 ½ years we finally got into the polishing phase.

Gosh. There were so many challenges and crazy things that happened to us during development.

Right at the beginning one thing was clear: we want high quality sound while performing any sorts of actions. And if you want something that perfectly fits your needs what do you do? Exactly. You do it yourself. And that’s what we did. We’ve built our own portable recording device.

A pair of big studio microphones pointing into opposite directions plus some high quality electronic and other parts brought amazing results. And although it turned out to be not perfect for every single task it still did a great job.

Or what about recording three days and three nights in a 150 year old cabin in the woods while being attacked by an army of millions of furious bedbugs. Ugh, I have tingling everywhere when I just think of it. Yeah, they were pretty nasty and made the recording process quite of a struggle. I guess we had to suffer for the sake of perfect setting.

During another recording session we got nearly arrested — Ha Ha. But maybe we’ll save this for another interview. All in all it was the fun part in that creative process even it was hard work.

So, we were travelling with our children across the country for three long and exhausting weeks in a car cluttered up to the roof with all sorts of equipment that we would need for recording. When we came back home we had nearly 17GB of audio files, which was about 98% of chapter 1.

Another challenge was to find an appropriate voice for our female protagonist, Frances. We were looking for nothing less than the perfect fit. And there are a lot of voice actresses out there, let me tell you. We had to listen to over 4,000 voice pitches until we finally found Sara.

We knew it had to be her, the second we heard her voice. Not only does she have the perfect voice to embody Frances, she is a talented actress as well. We didn’t even look for a substitute.

Thankfully, Sara was enthusiastic about the project right away. And a lot of enthusiasm is needed when you’re pushing things to the limit. In Sara’s case it wasn’t just simple voiceover but real acting. And she did an amazing job.

Last but not least the coding of the game was a hell of a challenge. We had to sweat quite a bit to get good results. There were no magic tricks out there how to create a scalable structure in order to move logically through nearly one thousand sound files. We had to create everything from scratch like a bunch of solutions to very unique problems.

As I understand it, TGWSTW is going to be an episodic game, split into 7 or so parts. When is the first episode due to arrive on the App Store? And how much will it and subsequent episodes cost?

Exactly. 7 chapters, split into 20 subchapters of similar length, plus 3 shorter flashbacks (approximately 1/3 of the regular length), which are kind of prequels, telling the back story.

Specific subchapters will show up as in-app purchases in the main menu, depending on the decisions you’ve made in the previous subchapter.

By the way, regarding the game length of chapter 1 we were surprised how much longer it was than we initially calculated. And so were our early players. But of course everyone was delighted about that outcome.

TGWSTW – Chapter 1 – The Loss will be available on the App Store and Google Play and on August 15, 2017. The price is set according to the suggestions from our early players at 2.99 USD per subchapter.

And here’s amazing news to your readers: For the first 3 days from release date you can download TGWSTW FOR FREE!

So, go ahead and make use of this launch promo! We hope you’ll enjoy it.

TGWSTW is in its testing phase at the moment. What have early player reactions to the game been like so far?

Right. The testing phase was extremely revealing and it can’t be stressed enough how important it is. That’s not just other people’s quick opinions but their unique perception based on their own character and experiences. You can never think of everything and that’s why you need as many people as you can get who examine your project from different perspectives.

It took us some time to gather 35 game testers from different countries and it definitely was worth the effort. Reactions were mostly very positive with one exception: there was one player who absolutely couldn’t get into the story right from the beginning. It just wasn’t his game, as he stated.

And yet his notes helped us to realize that we needed to add a feature which would allow players to skip a puzzle if they wouldn’t want to solve it for whatever reasons. That was just priceless. We are very thankful for such insights.

Besides, the remaining playtesters were very thrilled and enthusiastic. They immersed in the fictitious world, built up a bond with Frances already, delighted in the sound quality and they even heard things which weren’t actually there. Ha Ha. And exactly that is the beauty. You are going to experience your personal adventure — wherever your imagination will drive you to.

But back to your question — there was a reaction which probably will remain with us forever. The bond between a player and Frances got so strong that he often couldn’t stop worrying about her, sometimes he laughed about her jokes and sometimes he was suffering with her. And then there were moments when he just wanted to punch her. At times she was his daughter or his sister and other times she was his lover. Maybe we should mention here that he just got married two weeks ago. Ha Ha. Oops. Shh.    

But seriously, what better reward could you get as a developer? Such feedbacks are so encouraging. His feelings were in symbiosis with our vision. Everything was building up like we intended it to. For us it’s like: yeah! The plan worked out in 100%.

I notice there’s been quite a bit of interest in TGWSTW from the visually impaired gaming community. Will the game be accessible to this subset of players at launch?

Yes, that’s a major topic. Visually impaired people are highly interested in video games in general because there aren’t many good, accessible games available for them at all. Some of them go the hard way (due to lack of other options) and practice a lot so they gain amazing skills and become good enough to play mainstream titles. But we can only imagine how hard it must be to master a video game if you have no sight. At best that’s just an option for a few.

So, right from the beginning of our development it was a sure thing: We want to implement a game mode for visually impaired people. But it has to happen on a high quality level. We couldn’t sleep at night if we just implemented a screen reader. No. The experience of this adventure has to be equally deep for all of us.

And we are really sorry that we can’t get it done at launch. It’s impossible because our budget is stretched to the very limit.

Nevertheless it has the highest priority for us and is number one on our schedule. We are already in contact with three blind gamers who are very engaged within the community.

And if the success of chapter 1 proves us right we are going to hire them as our consultants of the visually impaired community. Under their guidance we’ll be able to promptly start development and update chapter 1 with the new mode as soon as possible.

Not only gives it us a good feeling making visually impaired gamers happy but we also hope to be a good example for other developers and motivate them to NOT ignore the visually impaired community during their development.

Thank you, Ruan, for all these great questions.

And thank you for providing such interesting and in-depth answers to all my questions!

As mentioned above, The Girl Who Sold the World is set to hit the App Store and Google Play this August 15. In the meantime, you can find out more about the game by visiting its official site and following Lyorah Studios on Facebook and Twitter.