Interview #026: Dennis Varvaro (Aloft Studio)
Do you miss the glorious 16-bit days that graced us with games such as Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and more? Then let me introduce you to Hazelnut Bastille! Brought to you by Aloft Studio, this blast from the past inspired game is currently in its #Kickstarter phase and is exceeding its own expectations! There's still time to back it as well as sign their petition to bring a $50 physical Switch option! On top of that, we got to sit down (or running around trying to keep up) with Dennis Varvaro, co-founder of Aloft Studio.
Support and back the Kickstarter here.
Sign the petition here.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I am 32 years old, born in 86. I am a driven person. I love to relax, but when I do something, I prefer to do it with study and intent. I graduated 2nd of around 600 in my high school class. In University I studied both Architecture and Philosophy, and graduated with a degree in each.
My architecture education was focused on studying the traditional forms, focused on the time from roughly 500 BC to about 1920, with the major connecting thrust of this stretch of time the Greco-Roman tradition and its various forms and distant descendants, such as the Byzantine works at the early end, and Art Nouveau at the late end. I would term myself an architect / architectural historian. I worked at a handful of firms around the US East coast, and one in Belgium. I spent around a year living in Rome, furthering my understanding of the works which are foundational to traditional western architecture.
My interest in game development is actually an outgrowth of my love for architecture and what it offers. I began working on hobbyist projects in order to explore architectural design freed from the context of what a client wanted to construct in the present, or practicality itself even. There is a long tradition in architectural history of drafting up structures which could never be constructed, for the joy of their forms. Anyone interested can look up the works of Piranesi, Boullee, and more recently the Japanese artist Tsutomu Nihei, whose work directly relates to those two.
Over time, I branched into more and more areas of asset art, design, and development. I began to spend so much time working on it, it really took over my life. An endless series of projects and prototypes...probably a dozen, each with their own charm, but generally lacking the proper control of project scope in order to be fully realizable. I learned a tremendous amount from each one, and also the ways in which future projects had to be restructured to avoid the pitfalls I earlier experienced. Around 2014, I had learned enough to begin focusing on commercial work that could be seen through to completion. I began a project called, Sticks & Starships, which is still in development today, but which stalled somewhat due to the other dev on the project needing to take a hiatus.
After it was clear we would not be able to finish that project on the time-line we originally intended, I worked on a series of other prototypes, testing out various ideas to see if there was one I would complete in the meantime. In April of 2016, I started Hazelnut Bastille with a friend I had known for around a year. We were each familiar with one another's habits and attitudes, and life situations, so it seemed like we would be able to see a moderately-scaled project through to completion together. The project grew in scope a bit from its original concept, but has more or less stayed on full track for development, and is now around half completed. That is where we are today! These days, I have been dividing my time between freelance asset commissions for games and graphic presentations, as well as the occasional architecture-related commission, but spending the majority of time on game development!
Having graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a Bachelor of Architecture Degree, was video games always a passion and something you wanted to pursue?
No! I was an avid gamer as a kid... I absolutely loved my NES, and had around 80 cartridges (thanks Funcoland, your 2-dollar catalog was my childhood). I had a Sega Genesis, N64, and PS2 as well. I didn't get to really immerse myself in the joys of the SNES until University, but I played the NES religiously as a kid. I have the entire world map of Legend of Zelda burned into my head. I can probably play an entire campaign in my mind, by closing my eyes, and guiding Link through every overworld trip and dungeon.
But my later life was about Art History and Architecture. I am in love with the poetry of tectonic forms, the grace of thrust guided through an arch, the celebration of the natural world that drips out of the classical language of architectural ornament, the sense of order in the way such buildings are organized in space, and the human ideals which they represent... getting into game development was like a way of exploring those ideas to an even greater extent than I could bound by the physical world.
The experience of being a game dev is a lot like the ideal of what being an architect is thought to be... you have to be conscious of what the user is experiencing and thinking, and you get to shape what their experience will be. You get to show them something that may thrill them, excite them, or even show them something which may make them uncomfortable, to shock them into contemplating a new idea. And as a game dev, you get to integrate the full experience... music, story telling, tense moments... relief, the joy of achievement... it is like you are pursuing the same goals, but you have way less external limits imposed on you, and you are given many more powerful tools to do your job.
Let's talk about Aloft Studio. For those unfamiliar, could you share some background as to the formation of the company and who is on the team?
Sure! The first two people who were involved were Chris Bolton and myself, working on Sticks And Starships. Mark Harbaugh joined our little group to partner with me to produce Hazelnut Bastille. When it became clear things couldn't go any further without it, we incorporated as Aloft Studio LLC, which is a Manager-managed LLC, with the manager also being a member (myself). Shannon Mason joined us as a contractor to work on the Music for Hazelnut, and has contributed a number of tracks already. Hiroki Kikuta, the composer from Secret of Mana, has also joined the project, and will be contributing a handful (2-6) tracks to the soundtrack, to form the central motifs for Shannon to later write variants on!
Prior to your upcoming project that we will talk about in a minute, Hazelnut Bastille, there was a prior game in development titled Sticks & Starships: Genesis. What is the current status of that title?
I touched on it a bit more before, but Sticks & Starships is a project within a Voxel world which is focused on engineering and logistics. The concept is for the user to experience a long transition from a primitive existence, to living within a vast machine world, processing many forms of inputs and outputs. They player has to perform tasks such as resource identification and sourcing, designing systems for collection, processing, and export, and lacing these systems together with an infrastructure that also handles things like power generation and transmission. The concept was born out of what I could only term games in their own right, where users would take Minecraft, and mod it into oblivion with so many new features it only resembled the base form by 20%. This was a very messy way to experience this form of gameplay though, and it was very buggy and unoptimized.
Our idea was to build a new voxel engine which was designed completely around this style of game from the outset, and could thus be optimized around it. Truth be told though, I think a big problem with this project was that it requires the very specialized talent and abilities of a rather unique dev with a special understanding of the problems. After Chris had to take a break, I attempted to find ways of continuing the project by inviting other devs to try their hand at the work, but none were really able to fill that role. The project resumed again recently, after Chris was able to return to it, but it is occurring in the background as we work on Hazelnut Bastille in the meantime. We don't really want to publicize its development like we did in the past, because it is long, yet intermittent. We figure better to only bring attention as it is nearing a release!
[Left Original Question As Is Even Though the KS Is Underway] Although less than a week away, Hazelnut Bastille is already making waves on social media. Launching as a Kickstarter campaign, can you tell our readers what they can expect in terms of gameplay, story, and more from this 16-bit title?
Well it is a bit later now (I got to you guys a bit late, due to the commotion, now a few days in!). Let me pull my Steam description, because it fits perfectly (did I mention we just made our page public?):
Hazelnut Bastille is a topdown, Zelda-like ARPG, crafted in a 16-bit character; it features action-adventure style gameplay. Players will engage with heavily tactical, real-time combat, and experience taxing lateral-thinking puzzles! Explore a vast Overworld which is brimming with content, in the form of secrets, collectibles, mini-games, and story elements! A set of unforgiving Dungeons forms the core experience, as the player obtains a series of items which grants them ever greater control over the world, as well as new powers of traversal, in true Metroidvania fashion! Players take on the role of a cast-out heroine, setting foot on the shores of a new continent, in the hopes of regaining something which was lost to her! Her fate will be inexplicably intertwined with the sundry crew already living there, as she gets drawn into a baroque plot to unravel the mysteries of this land's original inhabitants! Players can expect a roughly 20-30 hour experience, with high replay value and bonus content! Hazelnut Bastille is coming to Windows, Mac, and Linux Platforms on Steam, sometime in 2020!
It's already been confirmed that Hazelnut Bastille will release for the PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, and PS4 (stretch goal), but the topic of a physical release was all the buzz on Twitter the other day. You graciously confirmed a Switch physical release, but could you share some insight as to the publisher and possible goodies/CE that may, if any, accompany it?
Unfortunately, a lot of this is locked behind NDA walls...
The copy from the KS campaign is confirmed to have a limited edition cover though, which means it will likely be the most prized of all editions! We think this is a just reward for our backers both supporting us early, and paying a hair more to support our dev costs!
There is also a little something which is planned to go out to all Backers over 5 USD... I can't say what it is, and we conspicuously left it out of the KS, because the timeline for announcing it is a little unclear, but I think people will be pleased about the thing they didn't know they were getting! It's quite something.
It has also been announced that Hiroki Kikuta will be joining Aloft Studio as a celebrity guest composer on Hazelnut Bastille. Mr. Kikuta is most widely known for as the lead composer of Secret of Mana and other well known Square titles. How did this partnership come to be?
It is pretty surreal for me, not going to lie! I played Secret of Mana as a kid. I also had sheet music from Secret of Mana which I played on the piano, while developing my musical background. I had this thing in my mind, where all the folks who worked on those games back then were in this “bin”, that existed in another reality. Sort of like you can watch footage from WW1, and you will never meet a single person with direct experience of the event, so it feels significantly less “real”. We all knew that kid who had “an uncle that worked at Nintendo” (who was really just a clumsy fiction to lend weight to their speculations about the next Mario game). The idea to me that not only would I later meet someone from that era of games, but work alongside them, after having worked in a totally different field even, never once occurred to me.
As noted above, as we were digging through the horde of super-qualified folks who applied to join us as the composer for Hazelnut, I remembered a few folks who had contacted us months back. They were scouting agents representing some established professional composers we hadn't given much thought earlier. But when I looked through the rosters for a few, there were some guilded names standing out. When I realized that Jayson Napolitano was representing on his Scarlet Moon label an actual figure from my childhood, who was also an undisputed master from the 16-bit era, we took the chance to reach out, and now here we are a year later! Kikuta-San really took to the work!
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Well, the obvious! We had a fantastic launch to the Kickstarter! We had projections for where we wanted to be, in order to be safe enough to continue the campaign. We raised 500% of those projections over those days! A big part of it is that we built a base of newsletter subscribers, around 5000 strong. We stressed to our subscribers a key factor of any Kickstarter: namely that you want to hit 30% of your goal in the first week. If you do, you have a very good chance of being featured, and being considered for a tag such as, “project we love”, which helps a fair deal.
Not only did we meet THAT goal, but we met it in THREE HOURS! And we were up to 30% by day one, more or less. So I think the first group of people to thank are our 5000 subscribers, who showed up in force that day! The next group is your crew, the #SwitchCorps, who have taken a massive personal initiative in helping to promote this project and its goals! The extra boost this positive energy provided cannot be understated! After that, comes the dedicated writers at places like Kotaku, Game Informer, NintendoLife, SiliconEra, Destructoid, and many others, who have helped us with a huge number of great features over the last year or so, especially those leading up to the launch!
And finally, the host of private fans who have also taken it upon themselves to help spread the word during the start of the campaign, as well as the countless demo testers who gave us valuable feedback, back in March and April! A project this scale has been something that has only come to pass because of the efforts of over 10,000 unique people, and that is something we can't really even repay! We will do our best by making sure Hazelnut Bastille is the very best experience we are able to craft before it releases!
Support and back the Kickstarter here.
Sign the petition here.
Follow Aloft Studio