In the first installment of HD’s new Creator Spotlight feature we interview doujin game developers’ duo Momo Pax, who provide us with details (and exclusive screenshots!) from their upcoming STG/ADV hybrid Soft Landing, along the way answering questions about the creative process and fandom that keeps them moving forward. Fans of Touhou and side scrolling shooters, check it out!

screenshots from Soft Landing, Momo Pax’s flagship release

Heisei Democracy: I’d like to thank both of you for agreeing to be featured here on such short notice, and for letting me steal so much of Fet’s free time over the past couple of weeks to help with the site. First off, can you tell us about how you got together?

Jules, Momo Pax artist: I think it’s just one of those things that happens. For the longest time I wanted to make a video game, and even tried quite a few times, but it was always the case that the team would fall apart, or dreaded real-life responsibilities would get in the way. It’s kind of funny actually, I’m more busy now than I’ve ever been with work and yet also the most productive in my spare time. But yeah, Fet was definitely the first guy I came across who had the same level of interest and passion as me about making games. I know in the past he’d had plans to make games too, but they too never came to fruition, just like my own projects.

Anastacia La Roux, a
member of the Soft
Landing supporting cast

I can’t quite remember when it is myself, but Fet informs me it was about May 2004 that we first decided to combine our powers and create a game.. at least, that’s when the earliest concept art graphics are from! It’s pretty much remained just the two of us working on the project (although we might have to enlist some outside help for the things that we suck at – like music). I’m doing all of the graphics, and he’s doing all of the code. I think it helps that most of the time it is just the two of us working on the game.

It’s a pretty difficult thing to co-ordinate over such a long distance with a weird time difference (I live in Perth, Western Australia, and he lives in Seattle), but having only two people certainly makes it easier. When I look at the current situation I can’t help but think of how great it is to be working with Fet. There aren’t many people I know who are interested in the same aspects of video games as I am, but Fet is one of them. As it turns out, he’s also a genius coder! Huzzah!

Fetjuel, Momo Pax programmer: In May 2004, I had some sketchy plans to put together a galge / town-sim with K, an artist I’d collaborated with on a web comic. I showed the plans to Jules and it came out that we were both ready and eager to put together a game sooner than K was. Jules and I have known each other and been friends online for about 8 years, but we didn’t actually meet until he visited Seattle this past February. We communicate as close to daily as possible, via IRC, e-mail, Backpack, our developers’ diary, or the occasional Skype call.

fighting on planet
Radia, from Soft
Landing’s STG portion

There’s certainly some excellent chemistry between the two of us. We’ve spontaneously developed our own dialect of terms for discussing the project, and we rarely have serious disagreements about anything. Much of our success so far, I think, comes from trust that we both want to do the best job that we can do.

HD: So, what is your current project?

Fet: Soft Landing is a hybrid of a side-scrolling space shoot-em-up and a bishoujoeqsue visual novel. We’re trying to do a lot of different stuff at once. From the very beginning we wanted it to be kind of a cure for all of the downsides to quirky and independent games we’d seen: it needs to be high-quality, cross-platform, and in *English*. Most of all, it needs not to get abandoned.

I think the project has been a therapeutic outlet for both of us. Whenever I run into frustration with anything crappy I can’t control, it just makes me want to put more into SL, something we have complete control over. Likewise, whenever I’m overflowing with admiration for some product, all of that positivity can be poured into SL.

Our product will be a stack of our strongest feelings about *stuff*, wrapped up in the tradition of shmups and galge. It’ll be the game we’ve both always wanted to play, but which never existed. And the bonus is that other people might play and enjoy it, too.

HD: Can you talk about the development of Soft Landing a bit? What’s its’ current status? When can we expect a release?

Jules: We’ve been working on Soft Landing since back in 2004 when we decided the world needed at least one more excellent game. I think that it has taken us a long, long time to get used to how to make a game, but we’re definitely getting better at it now. To provide an example, I guess.. the first time I drew the player’s ship for the game (the Crystal Bell), it took me about 2 weeks of working a few hours a day to get something that I was happy with. A little while ago we decided that it was looking far too dated and needed to be a lot nicer (well, it WAS the first sprite I made for the game..). I drew up a quick sketch in OpenCanvas and then started doing the pixel art for it. The whole thing ended up taking about 90 minutes of work and it looks undeniably better than the original ship. I’ve learnt so much.

Crystal Bell evolution

evolution of the Crystal Bell design

As I mentioned though, progress is definitely much more steady at the moment than it has been in times bygone. I feel that over the last months we’re really achieving goals at a good rate and getting many new features into the game. I’m becoming far more accustomed to the graphical style we need and Fet with the structure of the game’s engine. If I ask him a question he’ll usually say right away that we can do that, or try to avoid it until I break him with my constant nagging. I like to think of it as give-and-take. :D

I’ll admit that it hasn’t always been smooth sailing though, there are a lot of times that things get in the way that are out of our control, and not having the ability to just sit down and talk with your partner makes development somewhat stifled when you need to talk about things like game mechanics. If anyone knows of a free, networkable, and preferrably cross-platform whiteboard program that isn’t crap, please GOD let me know about it! There have been periods of up to about two months where we haven’t really worked on the project at all, mainly due to not being able to properly keep in communication, but like I said, I think these days both of us are a lot more diligent than that.

Our current goal is to work towards releasing a demo ASAP. It’s kind of frustrating being as close as we are, because I keep thinking about how I want some feedback on all this work that we’ve done that essentially no-one has seen. There are a few important steps before we can do that, but depending on how much free time we’re able to muster between us it could be as soon as a few weeks from now.

Fet: My confession: at first I honestly wanted to make the game in Flash. I was fed up with cool-looking games that were made for specific computer platforms or configurations. Flash seemed more like a game console in that everyone who had it could count on having a consistent experience. Further exploring the universality of the game console, I looked into Game Boy Advance development, and got terrified. Eventually I found PyGame and felt right at home in its fusion of Python’s accessibility and SDL’s graphical might.

the Crystal Bell
faces off against
a “Barrelmans”
(working nickname)

Nearly everything in the game has been made at least twice. At the beginning of this project I knew no Python and no OpenGL. One of my favorite cathartic activities is going back through old code and tearing out huge chunks of it in favor of new, faster, cleaner algorithms.

Having a Backpack account (and a MediaWiki before that) to store all of the background and to-do lists is a boon. For far too long, all of the combined decisions about the project existed only in our heads or scattered across some OmniOutliner files on my hard drive. Similarly, finally committing everything to a Subversion repository has given us similar peace of mind about the code and resources of the game itself.

HD: What are the games you’d say most influence your work as creators?

Fet: The strongest influence on me from the beginning has been, without a doubt, Sakura Taisen. I played through the whole series with a friend of mine around late 2002 and early 2003; it pretty drastically changed the way I think about video games.

ST began with a theme song. They imagined the character of the game, and *then* decided what kind of gameplay would best fit the kind of feeling they wanted to offer. The story, the characters, the music, and the atmosphere are all more memorable than any game mechanic. The conversational, visual-novel bits and the tactical robot combat bits of ST are all subservient to the almighty, omnipresent *atmosphere*. I think that’s the best compliment I can give a game.

Soft Landing female
lead, Captain Brianne
Light Breen

More recently I’ve swooned over Ar tonelico, by GUST and Banpresto. It’s another hybrid game, this time fusing a visual novel with a traditional CRPG. These aren’t just games for people who like visual novels, tactics, or RPGs; they’re games for people who love to be immersed in a beautiful story happening in a beautiful world. The game mechanics are always means to that end.

So while we’re trying to create solid mechanics, our true success will depend on the player’s immersion in the SL world, and on the connections formed with the characters.

HD: What work or body of work would you say you’re most devoted to, as a fan?

Jules: I think this is an almost impossible question for me. I love variety. I play many games and watch many shows and movies that span many genres. I suppose the game series I anticipate and follow the most passionately is probably the Castlevania series, but I also consider myself a fan of the R-Type series, Street Fighter, Gran Turismo, Front Mission, various RPGs. Actually, now I think about it, I’d say my main passion is retro games, or modern indie games. I spend a heck of a lot of time playing old SNES games or emulating arcade games through MAME. I think about 1995 is my favourite era.

a Barrelmans
goes down!

I follow the modern Indie Gaming scene pretty closely too. There have been some amazing releases recently that would definitely make it into my list of top games. Doukutsu Monogatari, Warning Forever, rRootage, Crimsonland, Weird Worlds.. there’s a massive wealth of fantastic games out there that aren’t so well known but exhibit oodles of retro style.

I watch a lot of anime too, but if I was to pick a favourite I’d say Cowboy Bebop. As for TV series, nothing can top Twin Peaks.

Fet: For a long time I would have answered Xenosaga, but the series seems to be falling down a hole. Perhaps my opinion will change once I’m done with Episode III. I think my strongest devotion is to Sakura Taisen, which I consider a masterpiece, but it too seems to have run out of gas. My strongest excitement for new products comes from GUST, creators of Ar tonelico and the Atelier series. The way they create games and interact with their fans is pleasing.

Outside of games, I’m somewhat like Jules in that I select the finest specimens from a variety of areas, rather than delving deep into one area. I have endless admiration for the Japanese art-rock band clammbon, about whom I maintain an English fan site. I’ve been an incorrigible Apple fan since age 5.

HD: Do you have any opinion on “moe”, either the term itself or the phenomenon?

Fet: I collaborated with a Japanese artist named K for a few years on a web comic. In late 2004, she put together a little drawing and note to explain the meaning of “moe” to people who seemed to be misunderstanding the concept. Since then, the term has blown up to the point that I’ve seen its gratuitious use in Japanese TV commercials.

The meaning I first learned, that of innocent and bewildered personal captivation by some niche subject, still appeals to me. The further connotations of shallowness and revelry in probable psychological unwellness, however, creep me out. Miyazaki Hayao said in an interview with Murakami Ryuu:

“[…] if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets […]”

Welwyn, a mysterious
member of the Soft
Landing cast.

Characters are powerful. Character-oriented geek/otaku culture started from people fixating on characters more strongly than anyone intended, and even using those characters irresponsibly. Now there’s an industry for maximizing the exploitability of characters. I think creators have a responsibility to offer characters who can be cherished and looked up to, who can offer us something we don’t have; of course we’ll still geek out about them too. But what we often get is characters whose *only* value is to be geeked out about; that gets us nowhere.

HD: The last question is for you, Fet: You’re responsible for coding the new HD website from the ground up. Is there anything you’d like to say about the experience?

Fet: I never intended to learn PHP, but now I feel quite comfortable hacking WordPress to do just about anything. And it’s a pleasure to get back to Python and work on Soft Landing again. And now I’m confident that if anything Eva, ST, or GUST related comes out, Shingo will let me know. :D

And there you have it, folks. I’d like to thank Momo Pax again for e-stopping by to talk with us, and wish them the best of luck on the speedy development of Soft Landing. Look for an announcement of the demo release here at HD in the coming weeks!

Create something? Want to have it featured on HD? We’re now accepting Creator Spotlight submissions, great and small! Contact Shingo for details.