GT exclusive interview with Escape from Norwood indie developer Michaël Giraud

1 year ago 128

I had the privilege of getting to sit down and chat with Michaël Giraud, indie developer of the mobile game Escape from Norwood. Michaël reached out to me about his unique, illustrated story driven mobile game that came out this year, and I have to say I’ve really enjoyed playing it so far! You can find his game on both iPhone and Android for just $5.99. If you’re in the market for something new and different, like fantasy and choice-based actions, Escape from Norwood will keep you entertained!

Escape from Norwood - Trailer

Holly: Tell us a little about yourself (where you grew up, hobbies, background in gaming etc)

Michaël: I grew up in the south of France, at a time when even floppy disks where rare. I’m Atari 2600 years old, though my gaming culture was forged during the glory days of the Amiga. This is the platform I used to compose my first songs and develop my first game prototypes when I turned twelve. I currently have little time to play, with a day job, a night job developing games and a family life. I still feel the pull of Western RPG, 4X, RTS and adventure games, but I managed to resist it since I started developing Escape from Norwood.

Holly: Is Escape From Norwood your first game as a developer?

Michaël: My game development experience went through three stages. Firstly, there were the prototypes and half-finished projects I worked on throughout secondary school, trying to copy landmarks like Eye of the Beholder, which I even tried to fit on the 32 kb memory of my calculator (spoiler-alert: it didn’t work out but it was fun to try, especially the sound design!).
My college years and most of my career were occupied with finishing, administering, then rehauling and adding features to a MUD (ancestor still talking here, think of them as the grandfathers of MMORPG). This was done as a on-and-off side project. Eventually, when I thought all, including the audience, was lost to shiny graphics, the game got a little traction on sites like Audiogames.net and the simple pleasure of bringing fun to players and listening to them unrattled me slightly. Couple this with some personal events including the birth of my daughter and I said to myself “what not make a commercial game?” Enter stage 3, which lead to the release of Escape from Norwood. For me this is the opportunity to resume the career I almost started when I turned down an entry-level job at Cryo Interactive upon graduation, because of awful progression prospects and the much larger pile of money regular tech was offering me instead.

Holly: What made you decide to go mobile vs PC or console?

Michaël: It was a challenge to myself: I had this bloated MUD engine with more features than AAA RPG, and it relied solely on text output and text input. So I asked myself what it could become if I dropped the text input, since dropping the output was not a financiary viable option, me not being an artist at all. This made most sense on mobile platforms, where the keyboard remains painful to use. Thus started the game design and UX challenges of sizing down features and verbs so that the game remained consistent, interesting but mostly enjoyable on mobile devices, without the keyboard ever showing up. On that road, the game became more inspired by classic point n’ clicks than the open world RPG the engine was actually about. It also fit better with the plot, the character and the type of magic I chose to focus on for this first installment.

Holly: What are some of the things that inspired you to make Escape From Norwood?

Michaël: Game-wise, my most obvious source of inspiration for the underlying engine was the Elder Scrolls series. I skipped Arena, but Daggerfall and Morrowind took so much of my life around the turn of the century (not that I did not give 100 hours to Oblivion and 200 to Skyrim)… Yet, as it turns out, Escape from Norwood mostly resembles the point n’ click adventures from the 80’s and 90’s, and most notably the LucasArt ones.

Story-wise, there were obvious inspiration from all fantasy classics, though I wanted a very hard-fantasy setting with humans only and strict rules to magic. I also wanted none of our discriminations in the game world: some praised Game of Thrones for being feminist in its own way, but I wanted to go beyond that to a place where everyone was accepted regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion. Hence the addition of discrimination based upon the order of birth, which makes the world realistic and gives plot material as it helps us identify with the struggles of the characters without being shown a mirror of what we could be going through. There’s also a “fossil energy crisis” vibe to the world that is low-key in Escape from Norwood but begs to be expanded.

Holly: What are some of your favorite games to play in your spare time?

Michaël: There are the games I want to play, and the ones I actually play. In the first category, anything with a lot of exploration, freedom, an interesting and original story and a sandbox component will drive me crazy. But I can realistically only play for very short amounts of time, so I’m happy to put in a daily Wordle and mostly watch other people play classics I have missed over the past 20 years and new releases. I yearn to check out Roadwarden or Hades, I know I should have played Disco Elyseum, but I do hope that when I manage to transform the night job into a day job, I will have the opportunity to start having fun with games again.

Holly: Did you have any funny bugs or funny stories while developing Escape From Norwood you can share with us?

Michaël: I’d like to have really funny bugs, but the truth is that the engine was tested for a long time before Norwood’s inception, so no flying NPC or uncanny spell effects on this one. Two things come to mind, though: Regarding the music, I self-taught myself how to use Logic and how to compose for an orchestra (I was more of a rock musician / composer and hated the studio work). I had put together a first version of the music and showed the game to a musician friend. He did not know I had composed it and asked me why I had put those horrible fake strings from a vintage synthesizer…hopefully I upped my game since then and the quality is now vastly improved (at least this is what players say).

The other thing is the stubbornness with which I stuck to old habits and how much time it took for me to move beyond parser-based tropes. The early prototype of Norwood contained a compass with the four cardinal directions and you had to tap on them to move around, because I could not conceive of an open world text game without the sacrosanct north/south/east/west. You can imagine how much worse this became when I added up, down and enter! I have a lot of similar useless things I shed and could go on and on about them. Did you know, for instance, that an early version of Norwood also displayed how many centiliters of a liquid were in a container?

Holly: Do you have any plans for sequels for Escape From Norwood, or any other games in the works in general?

Michaël: This is a trick question. Escape from Norwood is chapter 1 of the Chronicles of Magistan. It stands very well on its own and provides adequate closure for its protagonist. The overall series is designed to be in five chapters, each fosucing on a different kind of magic, a different setting, a different gameplay, a different set of social issues and a different piece of the overall puzzle to expose. Yet I’m not entirely settled on my next step toward the gaming industry, so I cannot promise that chapter 2 is coming as a direct follow up, but should I work on a new solo game that would be it. In the meantime I’m working on a desktop version of Escape from Norwood to be released on Steam later this year.

Holly: What is your favorite part of your game?

Michaël: I really love the universe that the game introduces you to. I don’t necessarily mean the plot, though I like its twists, and I regret that the puzzle-oriented format and vast cast of characters did not leave me enough real estate to really develop arcs and personalities, but I stronly believe in the IP. There are exciting stories to tell about the social dynamics of this world, the ways magic affects everyone’s life in direct and indirect ways, where it comes from and how it actually works, and where the little breadcrumbs dropped here and there in the story will take it going forward. I published on the game’s website a short story set in this universe and dabbled with a regular choice-based short interactive fiction I may yet publish. On the website, you will also find a personality quiz to see where you would fit in Magistan’s society. Eventually, I may very well revisit this universe on other media, should I not work on a direct game sequel to Escape from Norwood.

Holly: If you had an unlimited budget and the chance to work with any studio in the world, what would your dream gaming project be?

Michaël: I would probably build my own studio to develop chapters 2 to 4 of Chronicles of Magistan as AA(A?) solo games and then end up in a blaze of glory by releasing chapter 5, a MMORPG where it would all fit together (but we know how well these tend to turn out, cue the job at Cryo interactive and Dune Generations).

Holly: Where can we follow you on Social Media?

Michaël: I’m currently triple-posting on Twitter, Mastodon,  and Facebook. This is where I’m most active. There is also a Discord server where I relay the main information and answer players. Eventually, I started a subReddit where I post articles about the game (e.g. walkthroughs) and its development process.

I’d like to thank Michaël for taking the time to sit down with me to chat about Escape from Norwood. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know more about the background of the game!

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