Interview: Honey Tribe Studios and Salamandaga

Let’s start out by getting some background on Honey Tribe Studios. How long have you guys been in operation, and has Ryan been involved from the studio’s inception, or did he jump on board starting with Ashley Ao? Are the Honey Tribe projects your first experiences in the videogame industry?

Shaz Yousaf, Honey Tribe Studios: Honey Tribe: Colony Collapse was my first game and I worked on that with another artist, Guy Jones, who I’ve been friends with for a long time. So the name Honey Tribe Studios came from that.

I realized that making games is good! So I decided to be involved in more game projects, work with a variety of people and release several games over the next year. So when I saw Ryan’s artwork at a game development forum I got in touch straight away.

Ryan Jackson, Salamandaga: I decided I wanted to make a videogame independently around late July. I wanted to sidestep the bureaucracy of the industry by starting simple, with a two person team. I posted my art portfolio and my intentions to an online forum, where I met Shaz. A day after we spoke, we had started on Ashley Ao. We’ve been pretty much full time on it since. Ao is my first videogame in hopefully a meaningful series of games.

You’re based in Los Angeles and in London respectively, right? What advantages and disadvantages come with remote cooperation, and how do you guys keep the communication flowing smoothly?

Ryan: We use Skype and Dropbox, which make the process pretty much snag free. The time zone difference is actually a great thing, as I can send Shaz artwork at the end of the day, and see it in motion when I wake up. It almost seems like a better way of doing things than working in the same area.

Shaz: I’d add that this setup works because we work together well. By coincidence, we have some similar influences when it comes to music, film and games. And when we first started talking about what kind of games we want to make, there was a lot of common ground, so we could bounce ideas off each other fluidly. Also, we’re both motivated to make something of great quality and are prepared to put the time and effort into seeing it through to the end. Starting a game is easy but finishing it is another story!

Let’s jump right to Ashley Ao, because this is looking seriously kickass. When was the project idea conceived, and how has the length and complexity of its development cycle compared to that of your earlier release, Honey Tribe: Colony Collapse?

Ryan: The concept started as bringing the depth and immersion of quality animated movies, like Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell, to the context of the simple iPhone game framework. Our focus has pretty much stayed on simple controls and mechanics that offer a deeper experience when used creatively, conveyed with great art and animation.

As anyone who’s made a game knows, everything changes everything else. Meaning, we’ve had several moments of, “Will this work without killing this other idea?” It’s a struggle, but that is the nature of the beast.

Shaz: Development on Ao is going much quicker than with Colony Collapse. I learned a lot from that first game so now I can build gameplay mechanics much quicker. Also, Ryan has been booming out the animations, so that helps me to put the game together faster. I pay a lot of attention to making the gameplay feel right as I’m building it — things like the timing of animations and collisions, character movement speeds, and ultimately, “Does it feel fun?” All that is much easier to work out when I have proper graphics to work with instead of placement images.

From what we know so far, Ao’s title character is on a mission to stop an alien terraforming operation. What more can you tell us about Ashley’s backstory, and that of her adversaries? For that matter, how will the plot be presented in-game?

Ryan: Ashley’s story started as more of a Twilight Zone type of short story, rather than a “Save the Princess” thing. We’re doing our best to maintain that subtle, mysterious sci-fi narrative quality.

She has been hired by an organization that acts as a realtor of planets, preparing and selling them to civilizations that have run out of resources on their native planets.

Shaz: We don’t want to give all the details of the story away yet — as much as possible we want to tell the story through the gameplay. And also through comic sections that help build up the story of who Ashley is and where she comes from.

But the main story element will be the conflict between the planet sellers, the buyers, and a previously undetected species that surfaces on the planet. And then Ashley has to figure out where she fits into all this as you progress through the game. It’s great fun thinking up massive, elaborate story ideas but we are quite conscious of bombarding the player with story information. We’re designing it so players who love story elements can look through bits of information they find and immerse themselves in the world and atmosphere. But people who just want to play an action game and beat stuff up — they can do that too.