INTERVIEW: Ackk Studios, Creators of Two Brothers

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

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Two Brothers Color

PAX East featured a number of indie game developers on the show floor. One such developer that we’ve spoken to in the past is Ackk Studios, and it’s about time we met up in person to discuss their game Two BrothersThe following round table interview features:

Andrew Allanson (Lead Composer)

Brian Allanson (Lead Programmer/Sprite artist)

Tyler Steele (Wii U Development)

Ian Bailey (Sidequest Level Design)

Jared: How has the experience been being siblings and working on this
game together? Do you ever want to kill each other?

Andrew: Very rarely!

Brian: We’ve been doing this since we were kids so it’s kind of
normal for us to work together.

A: Our uncle bought us programming books when I was maybe nine years
old and Brian was eleven. We started learning quick basic, java, and c+
+ so we’ve been programming and making our own games since we were
kids. We always did it together, so after school we would go down to our
dad’s computer in the basement, and we would program, draw stuff. The
first thing we did together was a Zelda II remake that turned out
nothing like Zelda II.

J: So let’s focus on music for a bit. I did listen to it by playing
two of the levels. It’s a bit nostalgic, so what’s your inspiration
for the music?

A: My inspiration really comes from the French impressionists, German
Romanticism, and less from video game music. What I really did by the
end of the game is that it starts off with a very Gameboy, chiptune
sound, and as the game goes on the music evolves from 8-bit to fully
orchestral. I wanted it to sound like video game music and a lot of it
in the beginning does, but it really goes away from it to something
all its own.

J: It definitely does have a different sound. If you hear an indie
game now trying to do some chiptune stuff they seem to have this
similar melody that harps on nostalgia. But it’s like with your
creation that it’s a little more simple. Here at your booth you have
demo monitors built into displays that are large Gameboys. It’s almost
like you could hear this music back when you were playing the Gameboy.
Is that what you were going for?

A: It was initially. When I first started composing I was restricting
myself to the number of sound channels they could use on the Gameboy.
But then, the truth is I’m more of a classical composer than I am a
video game composer. I really learned to be a video game composer
while working on this project. So most of this stuff I would rather
have it be operas and stuff like that. So it was interesting for me to
try and create music that I felt still had musical value but still
having it work in the setting of a video game. So the limitations were
good of having just four channels, and then eventually we got the idea
of allowing us to use a full orchestra. So it starts off extremely
simplistic and then it progressively gets bigger and bigger.

J: So what I was hearing in the demo was a lot more of a melodic town
and setting track. Does it get into a battle theme or anything like

A: So yeah, in the game’s soundtrack there are 98 tracks.

J: That’s a lot! That’s like the days of four discs on a Final Fantasy
soundtrack. So 98 full tracks?

A: Yeah 98 full tracks. Most of them go three minutes before they
loop. I probably could have been more economic about it but it’s fun
to do and it’s what I love to do. As soon as I knew what the game’s
sound was, it was easy to just create the music.

J: Are you maybe a little worried that having so much music might
blend together or do you have a lot of unique themes going on?

A: A lot of it is reorchestrations of character melodies so it works
almost like a Wagnerian opera where each character has
their own light motif when they appear on screen, and there’s a lot of
reoccuring themes. But for every setting there really is a new version
of it. So there’s a lot of unique melodies that come up in tracks but
I always recall back to the main character’s theme.

J: Yeah I look forward to seeing how that’s done because when
character themes and music like that is done well, when you’re a fan
of the beginning theme, you’re going to be a fan of every single theme
after that. And also when people tend to find their favorite
characters they tend to love their themes. Now, if you did have to
choose a video game composer, maybe as a favorite or maybe someone
that you’ve looked up to even if it has nothing to do with the kind of
music you’re writing, who might that be?

A: I think there are really two. Nobuo Uematsu is a complete genius.
Everything he writes is flawless and I can be completely brought to
tears listening to his stuff.

J: Have you ever actually been brought to tears by his music?

A: I have.

J: Which song was it?

A: “Melodies of Life” is absolutely gorgeous and then I believe the
other song is “Behind the Door”, also from Final Fantasy IX.

J: Who was the other composer you were going to mention?

A: I would say it would be Harry Gregson-Williams. He’s a
completely different sound from Nobuo Uematsu. He wrote the score for
Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and 4. He just has something particularly
powerful about the way he writes and orchestrates and I find it
remarkable how little he does to go such a long way. So I really
admire that he takes simple things and makes a lot of music out of them.

J: Let’s turn now to the actual game creation and programming side of
things. Brian, you mentioned earlier that you programmed a lot of the
game. I think that some people don’t fully see how much work goes into
actually programming and creating a game. How stressful can it be for

B: It’s not actually stressful. It’s sort of what I do to relax after
a full day’s working on 3D models. I just kind of switch back and
forth between doing sprites and doing some programming for the game.
The game is close to being done and we’ve been doing a lot of
maintenance, adding a new feature here and there.

J: I would imagine that being here at PAX East is a good playtesting
experience. Is there anything you’re seeing that you want to improve
from player feedback?

B: Absolutely. I’m noticing a lot of interesting bugs that I’ve never
seen before.

J: What’s the most interesting, entertaining bugs you’ve seen so far
that will need to be fixed?

B: The most interesting bug I’ve seen is a dead character start
speaking to you. It’s completely creepy but I can fix it!

J: How close is the programming being close to finished?

B: We’re saying the game is about 70-75% complete now so most of it is
about designing levels, maintenance, and bug fixes when we find them.
When more vigorous playtesting starts I’m sure we’ll find more to fix.

J: Do you believe that what you’ve been working on in programming is
translating well to the player’s experience? How does it make you feel
to see something that you’ve programmed come to life?

B: It feels awesome. Every time you make a little change and see it
come to life, that’s the best thing. When you tie animations and ideas

J: It sounds like that would be very rewarding. Let’s move onto you
Tyler. What is your role with Ackk Studios?

Tyler: I am doing the Wii U port.

J: I feel like there are people who will be excited for this to come
to the Wii U. How was the process in getting confirmed to be on a
Nintendo console?

T: Easy. It took maybe a week and a half. We were contacted by Nintendo
and set up real quick with their authorization and dev kits.

J: What does it take to bring Two Brothers to the Wii U?

T: Controller support is one thing, and then a higher resolution.

J: So for the Wii U, are we going to be able to do off-screen play
with the controller or is it going to be on the big screen only? What
do you think?

T: I’ve got to get a little bit further into development before I
answer that, but if possible we would like to do that.

J: People seem to enjoy being able to play on the tablet controller.

T: We’d really like to do it especially because it would bring that
feeling of playing a Gameboy back.

J: How about 3DS support?

T: The tool base we use is not currently supported by the 3DS. As it
is we’re also just seven people so it’s already a lot of tasks.

J: Brian, about how big is Two Brothers? How large of a game is it?

B: It’s getting pretty big. It’s about 15-20 hours now and we’re still
working on sidequests.

J: I can say that for myself I’m a big fan of narrative. In the demo
that I played it looks like someone dies and is then able to see
color. When that was happening I was starting to get a lot more sense
of theme and narrative design.

Andrew: Early on in the game Roy and his brother are on an exploration
and he has a near death experience. When he dies he sees this
afterlife that’s filled with beautiful colors. He then becomes
obsessed with trying to find these colors for the rest of the game.

A few minutes later Ian Bailey met with me to continue the interview.

J: Ian, what is your role with Two Brothers?

Ian: I’m doing a lot of the level design for massive sidequests that we
have going on throughout the length of the game.

J: How much do the sidequests really play into the 15-20 hours of
gameplay that was mentioned before?

I: Well they do have a major tie-in with the main story, but I don’t
want to reveal too much. Each area has different lengths to complete
so I would say about twenty to thirty minutes a level.

Brian: The sidequests add a lot to the story because they can actually
change the ending.

J: That’s cool because it usually sucks in a game when sidequets suck
and it really feels like you’re on a fetch quest.  I’m guessing
you guys went in a different direction with that.

B: It really allows you to see a deeper look into the world if you
want to dive into that part of it. So much so that the ending will be
drastically different. Perhaps even changing what the game’s about to
begin with.

J: Ian, did you help write some of the sidequests?

I: Yes, all the areas that I’ve done I’ve actually created the entire
story and history for each area.

J: How do you find level design in Two Brothers to differentiate
itself from other games?

B: We created a set of objects that kind of fit together and Ian has
put them to creative use.

J: Do you feel like in the level design that there’s a flow from one
area to the next?

I: Yeah definitely. Every area that I’ve done has a different theme or
mechanic that you have to use to get you through the area.

This concludes our round table interview with Ackk Studios.

About Jared Cyhowski

[Former Staff] Jared is a recent graduate from Fitchburg State University where he studied communications, video production, and English. He enjoys playing video games, watching anime, writing, and of course pizza. His favorite games are Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy IX, but he can’t possibly choose a favorite anime. Jared enjoys following the games industry and observing what will happen next, and he puts out an invitation for discussion on these topics. He loves a great story in these mediums and prefers a stronger narrative design over most features. Jared is personally responsible for creating and managing the Anime section of the website, and hopes to inspired and entertain with everything he writes.