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Interview #013: Iñaki Diaz - Appnormals Team

With me today is Iñaki Diaz, co-founder of Appnormals Team. With their debut console title, STAY, having arrived on the Nintendo Switch on September 12, 2018, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to spotlight the studio and learn more about the game. Enjoy!

Thank you Iñaki for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure thing! I'm the co-founder of Appnormals Team, where we design and develop videogames and applications. We are a very small indie studio, and what I do mostly is Art Direction, Game Design and Business Operations.

What was the first console/game you remember playing?

The first gaming system I owned was the Game Boy (Tetris and Super Mario Land to be precise). When I think I truly fell in love with videogames (and pixel art probably) was with my Super Nintendo, which is my favorite console system to date.

What is you fondest childhood video game memory?

My first memories come from playing games with my older brother on his ZX Spectrum (Manic Miner game in particular) and then on Atari ST (Another World, The Secret of Monkey Island, Space Harrier and many others).

Before we get into your impressive resume of being a pixel artist, game designer, 2D animator and co-founder of Appnormals Team, what were you doing before you entered the video game industry?

With advertising and design studies, I worked in the creative industry for 10+ years, in both digital agencies and also as a freelancer working in multiple fields of design (graphic design, web development, UI/UX design, etc.).

Appnormals Team is a Barcelona-based indie developer that was formed in 2016 by you and your long-term friend, Dani Moya. How did you two first meet and ultimately decide to start a company together?

We met in a digital agency almost 15 years ago, and we have been good friends since then. We had different career paths until we decided to join our forces again and do something for that thing called 'iPad', which was a coaching basketball application (we love basketball). With his programming expertise and my design and art background, we started designing applications and small mobile games in our spare time, until we entered a videogame incubation program for start-ups in Barcelona. We were lucky enough to become one of the winners of such program, and that allowed us to create our company in 2016.

I'm not sure if everyone has had a chance to visit your official website (link below), but wow is it hilarious! I love the little bits of humor, but I have to ask why Noodle Eating Capacity is only at 70%? Who's bringing the percentage down, haha?! Well, we still need to update our website (our fault!). Haha, noodles (and cheap food in general) have been important during our periods of financial struggle (just like most of the indies, I guess). All things considered, I think my noodle capacity could be at 99% forever - I just love them! Joking aside, despite STAY clearly being a darker game and more serious content-wise, the sense of humor is something we have always wanted to use in our work. Even though it is not the key element in STAY, there are bits of humor here and there, you'll see... 

Up until Stay, which I'll get to in a bit, Appnormals has primarily focused on mobile based games. What was it about this platform appealed to you?

Well, we started crafting mobile games because it was easier to start developing for these platforms. We had a lot of experience with Flash, so we used AIR to develop our first applications. Also, we didn't have any former background designing and developing games, so we used these first projects to make the needed mistakes and learn about it the hard way (probably the best way to learn). We haven't abandoned the mobile area as we think it might be interesting for certain projects and applications. However, we did switch it up a bit and decided to focus on the PC and consoles as we thought these were the best platforms for a game such as Stay.

Can you share a few words about your earlier titles, such as Super Barista and the Pixelworld series?

Pixelworld 1 was our debut game. It is a really simple game to guess comic book characters drawn in pixel art at a time pixel art was not so popular. It  became quite viral, specially in Spain, and we launched a second volume about TV shows. We made these games out of love (for the content and for the pixel art as a creative tool), although we didn't know how to monetize them or how to set up a proper free-to-play game either.

Super Barista was a much more solid project. We spent nearly two years designing and developing it, and despite being probably too hardcore for its casual appearance, it was quite well received. We won the "Most Innovative Game" at 3DWire and was also nominated at an Indie Prize Tel Aviv, besides being featured worldwide on the AppStore as one of Best New Games. Super Barista is basically a frantic game about delivering coffee with drones in outer space, combining ingredients from tower defense and time management, and it has so much depth and detail that it is still in our plans to make either a re-launch (with debut on Android) or a sequel. Not to mention this title would be a great Switch title too!

Aside from creating pixel art games that offer incredible challenges and much replayability, your studio is no stranger to receiving awards. Having accumulated multiple ones over the short time that your studio was formed, how does it feel to have your work so highly validated by the gaming industry?It means the world to us and makes all the difference. In the case of STAY (which has been clearly our most successful game in terms of awards so far), we spent almost two years developing it, being not only our first narrative-driven project, but our first title for PC and consoles as well. The challenge was huge for us, and having the validation from the industry experts or being selected to showcase in big gaming events is definitely helpful to boost our confidence towards the future. We never thought a game like STAY could be that successful towards press and awards, but it has been a great surprise to receive such recognition and we couldn't be happier. Let's focus now on your most recent game, Stay. Although Stay already released on Steam and Xbox One back in May, PS4 and Switch owners had much to look forward to on September 12th when it arrived on these consoles. For those newcomers, what can they expect in terms of story and game play?

STAY is a different game that takes a new route to tell a story. To start with you don't control the character, you play as yourself, and you need to trigger actions in-game's character through dialog. Quinn is the hero of the story, but he needs someone on the other side giving him the right amount of courage and emotional support to address this desperate situation. And that duty is for the player, of course. No matter if you don't know how to help him. Just by staying with him, he won't feel lonely and hopeless (needless to say, you should leave as less as possible, due to the real-time aspect of the game that tracks your time away from playing it). STAY is a roller coaster of emotions and a story that will bring both positive and negative feelings to the player, and that is entirely intended. We wanted to put the user in the same level of confusion and struggle as Quinn is: you will both feel equally lost, so you will need to figure it out together.

The level of creativeness that went into this game is some of the best I've ever seen in a game. By trying to help a person through the use of a computer AND in real time, the sense of urgency has never felt more apparent than in Stay. Can you walk us through how the concept for Stay came about?

Well, we had the idea of having an imaginary friend asking for advice via a messenger app, and that evolved to a more cinematographic concept of someone alone and trapped in a dark room with a computer. From that point and having only that premise as a starting point, our writer developed the entire story plot and she was talented enough to mix it with a very personal experience that I personally went through (can't tell you more or we would be in spoiler territory) which I wanted (or needed, maybe) to share. The complex narrative of STAY is built up with these elements.

With multiple branches and seven different endings, I can only imagine the new ways to interact with Quinn. How different would you say multiple playthroughs will be for gamers?

Although you can make Quinn take different routes and there's several rooms and items to unlock and collect, we wanted to tell one story and not multiple ones, so there's a lot of the game that remains the same (not the dialog itself, but the puzzles and overall journey). Basically, the main events and revelations Quinn needs to face are the same, but his current emotional status and attitude towards them is going to change based on your relationship. That's why we have a Main Finale (best possible ending) and six alternative ones as a consequence of how the dialog has unfold between you two.  PQube is the publisher for Stay. Can you explain how the two companies came together and what has it been like working with them?

We pitched STAY to PQube at Gamescom in 2017, after we found out they have been releasing narrative titles and visual novels in particular. They fell in love with the concept, and after short negotiations we declined other publishers that were interested and signed with them. They have been very supportive with us so far, helping us not only with production and console certification, but supporting our presence in international events where the game was selected such as PAX East, Gamescom or PAX West.

Are you able to tease what's next for Appnormals after Stay?

It is still too early to announce anything, but we are already working on the foundations of our next project. It will be very different from STAY, but we will do our best to feature a compelling narrative and charming pixel art visuals and animations, while treating a very controversial topic rarely used in videogames. Is there a physical version of Stay for the Switch planned at this time? Not at the given time, although this is an option on the table if the digital release is successful enough. Fingers crossed!

If you could create a physical CE for Stay, what items would be included? We would definitely add the soundtrack (which is superb), artbook and puzzle hint guide with some explanations of the symbols and cultural references used in the script. Besides your own, what game(s) are you currently playing and which ones are you looking forward to? Unfortunately I don't play much and I'm often a bit late, although I recently finished Detroit: Become Human and it was a great experience. At the moment I'm playing the following titles in these platforms: Thimbleweed Park & God of War on PS4, Super Mario Odyssey on Switch and The Lion's Song, Code7 and Hollow Knight on PC. Is there anything else you'd like to share today? That I'm super excited with the launch of STAY on multiple platforms and on Nintendo Switch in particular! We have great hopes on this platform, as it should be the perfect device to play STAY and its natural fit, as you can check on Quinn more often.

I hope that clears the field for you, but if you have extra questions don't hesitate to ask! : ) Thanks once again for your support!

Download Stay from the Nintendo eShop here.

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