I recently had the privilege to speak with Ska Studios, which was founded by indie game development duo James and Michelle Silva. Perhaps best known for their breakout release, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and its sequel, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, Ska Studios also released Charlie Murder on Xbox Live Arcade in 2011. Recently, the duo released their first self-published title to PS4 and Steam in the form of Salt and Sanctuary, a Dark Souls inspired 2D action game. Ska Studios recently sat down with me via Skype to discuss their latest release, what it was like moving into self-publishing as an indie studio, and what games they are currently addicted to.
GUG: Where did the name Ska Studios originate?
James Silva: Uh..well… [Laughs] we get this one a lot. I used to listen to Ska music when I was younger but I don’t really listen to it anymore. I guess for me Ska kinda felt niche at some point—at least it was for me. So it was kinda taking that same idea into forming a game studio that is finding its own comfortable, quiet, little niche and that’s Ska studios. We have one Ska song in all of our games.
Michelle Silva: James was in a Ska punk band in highschool. There really isn’t much to it other than he used to be really into Ska. But the studio name before that used to be called Totally Screwed Software before any of his bigger games. He then decided to make a little more professional sounding company name. Interestingly, there is only one Ska song in all of our games and that is in Charlie Murder.
GUG: If I am not mistaken, you developed the first game, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, all by yourself as Ska Studios correct? Is that the same way now with Ska Studios or have you moved to a larger team?
JS: Well it is just Michelle and me now. Charlie Murder I actually started before we became a duo. Yeah, it was a bit of a weird transition; we are going to put [Charlie Murder] on Steam hopefully this year.
MS: Yeah, I joined the team at the end of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, Ska Studios’ second game. So I did a little work on that but it was still mostly James’ project. After that Charlie Murder and our latest game, Salt and Sanctuary, were completed by both of us. So it was a team effort. Charlie Murder actually started as a smaller, 20 minute game and then Microsoft saw it and said they would love to see it as a full game and then four years later it came out as a full game on Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360. Yeah, hopefully [Charlie Murder] will be out on Steam by the end of this year. We might have alot coming out on Steam this year. We will see what happens.
GUG: I noticed that Salt and Sanctuary was your first self-published game. Have you moved into self-publishing now with your games?
JS: Yeah, ya know I still kinda feel like I’m new to this industry. Ska Studios has existed for 9 years now; we are coming up on our ten year anniversary next summer and I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing. But the biggest kind of development shock was transitioning from 1st party publishing with Microsoft on Xbox 360 to self-publishing on PS4 and Steam. Actually, Steam had fewer surprises. But it was actually a big shock to see how many little things Microsoft expertly took care of that we now had to take care of on our own. We have almost been through it all.
GUG: Elaborating a little bit more on the difference between 1st party and self-publishing what would you say is one of the biggest challenges you faced with the transition?
JS: I mean really it was all the little things including QA. That is the most in-depth process while you’re developing games. We actually contracted out QA through The Behemoth. They have a testing sister company called The Research Centaur and we contracted out to them for QA. That was probably the most straightforward part of it. Then there were little things like localization. We never got on top of localization and I guess we could have skipped out on it or tried to include it later. Yeah, we told Sony, “It’s got Google Translate localization in there so it probably isn’t good enough right?” and Sony responded, “No, that’s actually pretty impressive.” We were just like “Um…ok.”
It felt like it was placeholder but it just never got fixed. So it shipped like that and I told myself that when I grew up playing Nintendo the localization was always terrible. I guess it’s just a high level of tolerance for that sort of thing or maybe a spectrum of some people that would say it was funny and some would say that it is insulting. Yeah, so the localization is probably the big screw up that we were most embarrassed about. Another one was ratings. We were trying to get everything all lined up and then someone was like, “You guys have your ratings, right?” and we were like “Ratings?!?!” I think we just had to do ESRB and PEGI, but with PEGI there was a whole turnaround where we thought it would come through late and we had to wire money, send them the video footage, and make sure we were scheduled early enough in advance. So it was a little scary but not super hard. So I mean the nice thing about publishing with Microsoft was that all we had to do was send them a build, then they’d send a form reporting bugs, then we’d fill out another form and send it back and it was just a much smoother development whereas through self-publishing with Sony, it was just like, “Oh, so this is what Microsoft was doing the whole time.” That said, I think we are still happier self publishing because you get so much more control that way and it is just a neat feeling. It all worked out and now 1st party publishing for games at this level is pretty much all but dead. We have moved on and are pretty much just doing the Sony/Steam stuff.
MS: Yeah, it would have been better to not have [localization] at launch but we launched [Salt and Sanctuary] with Google Translate and felt a lot of repercussions from it so it felt like a mistake. We were a bit confused by Sony’s response to Google Translate localization but we just went with it. It was interesting seeing the reactions from different languages in response to the localization. Germany was probably the most vocal—not really upset, but just like “Hey, your translation is horrible. You need to fix that,” and other languages were even nicer about it. I think part of it is just sales numbers. The US is the #1 country in Steam sales and then Germany is the number two country in sales so it could just be the number of people purchasing and playing the game.
GUG: With Salt and Sanctuary did it start out with Dark Souls inspirations or was that something that came about as development went on?
JS: The whole approach was like “What would happen if you took Dark Souls mechanics and put it into The Dishwasher’s feel, look, engine, or whatever.” Basically, take Dishwasher and add Dark Souls mechanics. Would it work? Would it not work? Would it just be weird? Would it capture certain things? Fail to capture certain things? The answer to all of those was, “Yes.” [Laughs] I know I just have attention issues so the idea with Dishwasher and Charlie Murder was that everything was just like, “Ahhh! It’s all happening!” I guess it’s just a matter of the confidence you have to have to say, “No, it’s just gonna be quiet with exploration.” It’s not gonna be intense action every two seconds. And it was not knowing if that would be fun, because with a game like Dishwasher it’s all about the action, that twitchy, instant gratification feel. Like I can always pick it up and play, whereas Salt is more quiet and about exploration. Like with Souls games, it is exciting because it is so dangerous and unknown but when you’re actually making the game, ya know, that unknown it doesn’t really exist. You lose that whole discovery aspect of it as the developer so you keep reminding yourself that just because you’ve walked this path to wherever a million times that it’s still gonna be exciting to have the confidence that this new experience for other people is gonna seem pretty cool.
MS: Yeah, it started out with “What would happen if we made a 2D Dark Souls?” It actually started out as a smaller hobby project. James had it on his laptop at PAX three years ago and some friends of ours came by to check it out and they all said “You know what, you need to make this into a full game.” So we decided that would be our next project. The project actually started four..yeah, four years ago. So yeah, it worked out for us but the big question was will it work to add that stamina meter as our games were previously fast paced beat-em ups with little slow down.
GUG: What kind of success has Salt and Sanctuary seen so far? Is it comparable to the games you released on Xbox 360? Is it better? About the same?
JS: Yeah, we never did [Launch on Steam] with our 360 games and we’re finally getting to it. But we are not doing it ourselves. We’re working through a very talented gentleman named Ethan Lee who made this sort of middle-ware framework called FNA, which is basically an open-source XNA that works on PC, Mac, and Linux and he also does porting so he is working on the ports of Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile right now. So that’s exciting that that’s finally gonna be on Steam because we had this sort of wake up call when backwards compatibility was announced because we thought, “Well, hey we have all these games out on 360 and now new people will be able to play them,” and uh…due to complications that we can’t get into, our games actually can’t work with backwards compatibility. Releasing on a console is so much more involved than simply releasing on Steam so we decided we will just release it on Steam and see what happens. I am pretty much content just to put them on Steam just to preserve them really. Right now, I am just thinking about working on our next project. We haven’t started anything yet but have just been kind of planning it out.
MS: I would say that it’s a lot better. I think part of that also is just being on multiple platforms. Being on Steam has been such a huge bump, not only for sales but also for awareness, because while not everyone has a 360 most everyone does have a PC. And these days a lot more people game on PC. It felt like a really good time to join Steam. So there is a thing where it could be on Xbox One but not backwards compat, so it would have to be like a re-release and we would have to put some work into it. Yeah, there has definitely been a lot more upkeep with Salt and Sanctuary than with our previous games so we are still doing a lot with that. The port is coming along—no timeline on that but it is coming along. We need to do one more patch on console before that releases.
GUG: Just to clarify, backwards compatibility will not work for your old games on current consoles and you currently have no plans for a re-release of your older titles on current gen consoles?
JS: Right, yeah. Just Steam. I mean for us to re-release our games on Xbox One, I just don’t see it recouping what it would cost.
MS: There are two of us and only so much bandwidth. Maybe there would be a possibility of someone else handling the port for us but we would have to work on that and figure that out.
GUG: There is a similar art style that has been used in all of your games so far. Is there a shared universe or connected world between your games?
JS: It’s as simple as that’s just how I draw. My drawing style. In terms of shared universe, there has been some conjecture about that in the community and I kinda like to play to that. Actually there is a bit of an Easter egg. In Salt, in the skill tree, there is a prophecy about The Dishwasher.
MS: People have definitely found [The Easter Egg in Salt]. I’ve seen people talk about it on Reddit. It was a little bit retroactive since some fans saw certain connections and made interesting parallels between our games. Someone actually made this long fan-theory of how each of the game universes are connected. So we were like “Alright, cool, yes.” We just go with it.
GUG: How is your relationship with Microsoft now that you’ve moved to a self-publishing development model? Are there plans to bring Salt and Sanctuary to the Xbox One at a later date?
JS: It is definitely a possibility, but we haven’t committed to anything yet. It could be the kind of thing that would fall back into Microsoft’s camp because of their current policies now. We agreed to an exclusivity program with Sony because they set us up on Pub Fund which is a program to help indie developers by guaranteeing minimum sales. Basically, if the game tanks you can keep making games. It would give us enough leeway to work on our next game. Total exclusivity was really short, which is why we’re about to release on Steam. But the console exclusivity means we would have to wait ’til next year to launch on Xbox One, if we did. And then with [email protected] there is the parity clause which basically says that if the game is coming out on competing consoles it has to launch on Xbox in the same week. If it doesn’t do that then it has to have a significant amount of original content to make it the Xbox One Special Edition or whatever. It’s kind of a really stupid thing though because it could go one of three ways: either we can’t release on Xbox One, or we create exclusive content that Steam and PS4 players would not have access to which would do a huge disservice to those fans, or Microsoft compromises and only wants a Master Chief armor set or something [Laughs]. That could maybe work like that. Something that wouldn’t really anger a bunch of people. We have a little more time to figure out what might become of that. We have been asked about Xbox One a lot. It feels like at PAX last year that was a frequent question and Xbox One sales have really started to pick up.
GUG: What did you learn from developing The Dishwasher and Charlie Murder that you applied to Salt and Sanctuary?
JS: So Charlie Murder was the first game out of our studio that had a robust loot system. Especially, with just like, wearing clothes. So I figured that out, implemented it and that was kind of where I thought, “What if we took these mechanics into a Dishwasher-style 2D fighter that would then turn into a 2D action RPG?” And I am obsessed with Dark Souls so it could be a sort of 2D Dark Souls. Questions like, “Carrying weights and overburdening and how would that effect combat…how would that look? How would it play?” Those were all really fun challenges to figure out and to tweak until they felt right.
GUG: Speaking on gameplay, I don’t know if you had a grudge against players of Salt and Sanctuary [Laughs] but that first boss worked me over pretty good.
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, the idea with that first boss was that originally the enemies in the first area were a lot more active. So then I swapped them out for dumber enemies so that going from that to the first boss was kind of a substantial lurch. The idea is that once you get past the first boss, you’ll have all the tools you need to complete the game in terms of just gameplay. A bit like what Ninja Gaiden on the first Xbox did. The first boss in that, I thought, was one of those bosses that you can’t beat. So actually the first boss in Salt and Sanctuary was probably tweaked the most because we let a bunch of streamers have some time with it before launch and they would figure out his patterns and it was just over. They would just beat him in no time so they would offer suggestions on how to make him more adaptive and make it a more interesting fight. We definitely are really glad we took their advice on that and it became this great crucible, like “Here are your challenges, here are your tools, and here is what you’re up against.” I think it came out really well. On Steam, the system with the candles works perfectly but on PS4, it doesn’t work right. The candelabra before every boss fight has a feature where the number of candles currently lit represents the global win/loss percentage against that boss. The first boss is about 30% which means that most people will face the boss about three times before they finally beat him, which is a good number. I am happy with that.
MS: Yeah, like one of those bosses that you aren’t supposed to beat [in response to James’ comparisons to Ninja Gaiden]. Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But nope, it is just a really hard boss.
GUG: That mechanic with the candelabras is very cool and I actually didn’t realize its use at all when I played the game on PS4. Do you know why the feature doesn’t really work on PS4?
JS: It comes down to how we got to use the back end development stuff. It’s on me. It basically only compares the performance of the ten most recent players. So if the ten most recent players haven’t gotten further than the third boss then the game won’t add data for any of the bosses beyond that. Like later candelabras will have no candles lit because none of the recent players will have faced those bosses.
GUG: What do you hope fans gain from playing your games? Is there an underlying theme or message within your games? Any commentary or anything?
JS: I think with any of our games, I want to do the same things that I want to get out of games, which is just a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—just that singular sense of doing the impossible through tenacity and willpower and I think it’s something that only exists in games, that tight loop of overcoming something 100%. Our lives are struggles constantly but with games it’s like, “Here’s a challenge, do you have what it takes?” It’s a special thing. So that is what I like to get out of games and it’s what I like to put into games. It’s like the feeling I get when it’s a tough boss fight and I might be able to do it but I am nervous and my heart’s racing. When I was like ten, it’s that same intense anxiety of “Will I do this? Can I do this? Heart’s racing,” and I still get that exact same feeling now and it’s so exciting. To finally pull it off is just so satisfying.
GUG: Are there any plans for DLC for Salt and Sanctuary or any type of additional content for the game?
JS: Um..so we aren’t planning on DLC [Laughs]. Yeah, I would rather start work on a new game. That’s just how I go. And then now that we are on multiple platforms the logistics of releasing DLC, to me, seems nightmarish. It feels easier to be like “Let’s take all our ideas and build them into our next game.” That’s exciting to me and that’s pretty much how we are going to do it.
MS: It’s just a matter of we didn’t plan for it ahead of time and we’re not sure how it would work with the existing structure of the game and then any ideas for DLC would probably come together in the form of a new game instead.
GUG: When you come up with a new idea for a game do you always look at it as a single entry or do you envision it as a trilogy like with The Dishwasher? What is your strategy with that when coming up with new game ideas?
JS: So for me I like to really just get lost in the universes that we make so if I am thinking in terms of the universe it’s like, “Well, what else could we add to it?” Starting it certainly, there was no plan of making it into a series. In fact, it was the same with with Dishwasher. When I finished Dishwasher I started working on a reboot of one of my first games, a zombie survival horror game I made in 2004 called Survivor Crisis Z. I started working on that and when Dishwasher was received so well and people started clamoring for a sequel I was like, “Well maybe I’ll do that instead,” and I just kind of shelved the Survivor Crisis reboot. We would have had a third Dishwasher game probably if not for Charlie Murder getting an XBLA contract. At the time of getting the contract I was like, “Wonderful, I must act on this.” And, ya know, with The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai the reason it came to be was that it was a contest entry that won a contract. Like that’s the prize, this coveted contract that everyone is battling over. So we won and we got signed. And after Dishwasher 2, they saw Charlie Murder and wanted to sign that too and we were like “Ahhh, we’re getting contracts left and right!” [Laughs] At some point after getting a few contracts it’s no longer this unattainable thing. Sort of like how it is to release on Steam now where we can just email someone and say “Hey, we have a new game can you send this up for approval.” At the time of Charlie Murder, I was just so amazed that we got yet another contract and I started to think “Oh! This means that we’re still Ok.” I kind of wish though that instead of that I started working on Dishwasher 3 because Charlie Murder was the last game we were able to get onto XBLA.
MS: Mm hmm. It’s like could we take the system that we have and continue on with it. Especially with Salt and Sanctuary since it was really successful and such a pleasure to work on. Like Charlie Murder, for example, is one that didn’t do so well and wasn’t very fun to work on so it probably isn’t one that we would continue even though it easily could be continued. But for Salt it would easily make sense to do that. It depends on the game. Yeah, I don’t know if Charlie Murder was the last game on XBLA but it was one of the last indie games that came out on 360. I guess everything is a learning experience. As a new developer you are excited about any new contract you get and now, you know, nine years later we are a bit more business savvy. We are lucky enough now to be able to choose what we get to do, like if Salt tanked we would be able to figure out other options. Now we are at a point where we can be a little more picky and choose what games we want to work on.
GUG: Now you touched on it briefly there, just a moment ago, but are there currently any plans for Dishwasher 3?
JS: It’s been so long now that I look back at Dishwasher and Vampire Smile and like so much time has gone by and there are so many things I would have done differently that you can’t retcon. It feels like a different era. I guess we could even reboot Dishwasher. It even comes down to how I play games now. I love games where I can create my own customer character and that really came through in Salt. Like Lords of the Fallen, you are just “this one guy and he is a brooding guy.” Yeah, I wanna be my own guy. As a gamer that is what I want and as a developer that is what I like to make. That is where I’m at right now so for me the idea of a game where you play as the broody Dishwasher guy just doesn’t appeal to me as a gamer anymore. It’s not the kind of game that I really play anymore. I don’t know; for me it makes more sense to continue in the Salt universe.
MS: Not immediately. It would be nice to finish out the trilogy since it was originally supposed to be one [laughs] but I don’t know what kind of time frame that would be in. I guess it depends on how Vampire Smile does on Steam. I guess if it’s a crazy hit then we would have a reason to continue it on. I guess that is the good thing if we did a third one years later is that we’d be able to change many of those things. [Laughs in response to James describing Lords of the Fallen] “He is Broody McBroodman. I don’t wanna be that guy. I wanna be my own guy.” I guess what it comes down to is we make the games we like to play and Dark Souls-likes are what we like to play I guess.
GUG: One of the things I definitely loved about The Dishwasher games and all of your games in general is that in all these different genres that you’ve done you always find a way to do something new with it. Especially with the Guitar Hero style sequences in Dishwasher which was really new for a metroidvania-like hack’n’slash title. I think that is what was so popular about those games for alot of people and those types of games are actually sort of making a comeback now. I think that is one of the best things about Ska Studios’ design is the uniqueness of these elements in your games and how you always manage to make something new out of a genre that can sometimes feel overdone by other developers.
JS: Thanks. And ya know, I think a lot of it simply comes down to what I’m playing. I mean with Dishwasher that was when I lived in an apartment with a bunch of other guys and we all played Rockband like every night. [Laughs] Still I guess it’s coming back because there was a big new Rockband booth at PAX. But yeah, I mean it all comes down to what I’m into, what I’m playing. Who knows where ideas come from, right? Yeah, [Divinity] totally does everything that Sword Coast Legends failed to do.
MS: [Laughs] Like, “Lets make use of these plastic instruments again.” We’ve been playing alot of Divinity, that isometric fantasy RPG. It really like scratches the D&D itch and does everything right that Sword Coast Legends tried to do that didn’t quite work out. I don’t know if we could make an isometric RPG or would want to.
GUG: I know you’ve talked a bit about your love of games like Divinity and Dark Souls but are there any recent games that have come out that you’ve really been inspired by or enthralled by that you might take some ideas from for your next project.
JS: Yeah. That’s not really applicable for us. At some point, I was like what if you had a game where the way magic works is all elemental combinations. Like poison lightning vs. fire lightning, what’s even the difference? [Laughs]. Like, “Ok well poison lightning would make you move slow, so now it’s like a slow spell.” But it was just like something I did for myself when I was in community college and making like really bad games and you start to pencil out combinations and it’s like “These are all just, ridiculous.” I just played through the new Deus Ex and every time I play a Deus Ex game I’m like “I wanna make a Deus Ex game!” [Laughs] Deus Ex is just, like, a cyber version of D&D where you have multiple options. “Are you gonna try to talk your way through this? Are you gonna try to sneak your way through this? Are you gonna try to blast your way through this?” Maybe that only works so well in Deus Ex because there are so many grates in the future. Yeah, air vents, not grates. You’re like a super sneaky cyber soldier and you just like go through these giant, human sized air vents and they’re just wonderful. Right, you wanna rob a bank, there’s an air vent. Take down the president? There’s an air vent for that. If you look around hard enough you’ll always find a really accessible air vent behind a giant vending machine, which you can just pick up and move over and no one seems to do anything about that either. But yeah, I really like the whole RPG problem solving with multiple approaches. I don’t know how [a survival horror game from Ska Studios] would work or what that would look like. I would like to do that but I just have no idea how. We have some ideas but we haven’t really explored them.
MS: Well, we’ve been playing alot of Overwatch but I don’t really know if that carries over. Not in terms of the type of game it is but maybe what can be gleaned from it like how the different classes interact with each other. Like a rock, paper, scissors game of what kind of class beats another. Finding that perfect synergy [Laughs]. I always like it when skills blend well with each other like when someone casts a tornado and someone casts fire and now you have a fire tornado, or something like that. Those are always fun. So many air vents. [Laughs at James’ description of the air vents in Deus Ex] And no one seems to think “Oh, maybe he went into the waist high air vent?” And [the vending machine] doesn’t seem to make any noise at all. The idea that we keep coming back to that we have kind of dabbled with but haven’t made a full effort on is horror games. We really like Silent Hill 2. It would be really cool to make some kind of survival horror game.
For more information on Ska Studios, both past and present, please visit the developers’ website. To purchase either of The Dishwasher titles, or Charlie Murder please follow the purchase links on their site, here.