“We’ve had some people get pretty negative about our mother’s death, and how that delayed YIIK, and things like that,” Andrew Allanson says, “so we’re a bit weary of getting too personal these days.”
September 2016. The world was in a state of unease and outright panic at the upcoming US Presidential Election. The world of video games was as busy as ever at that time of the year. New releases for the month include Bioshock: The Collection, XCOM 2, and the always popular FIFA 17. Ackk Studios developers Andrew and Brian Allanson didn’t notice any of this, however, and it wasn’t because they were busy working on YIIK: A Postmodern RPG.
Rather than retreating inward, the Allanson brothers chose to go public with the news. Over the course of several months, they made several posts saying their mother was sick. Those posts came to an end in March 2017, with one bitter, final note. “Basically, as you probably know, my mother died last year, right around the time I had planned on finishing the game,” Andrew wrote on this personal blog.
Needless to say the two were grieving. Video games are great – they’re fun to play, fun to talk about, and can even be fun to make. But when life throws a curveball at you like this, they suddenly don’t matter anymore, not to you anyway. The world keeps moving, but to you, everything stops. According to Andrew, several people lashed online at the announcement that the game would be delayed indefinitely while he and Brian dealt with their trauma.
“It’s to be expected,” Andrew said. “The internet is the internet, and that’s about all I can say. I honestly doubt they were supporters of the game really, probably just people trying hard to be negative.”
Two Brothers Indeed
The story of YIIK doesn’t begin or end in tragedy though. Instead, it began after the completion of the brothers first game, naturally titled Two Brothers. Production began three years ago whenever they could get the time, but the two have been working on it full-time for two years now.
Where YIIK is a 25 hour game with a massive 3D world to explore, Two Brothers is a more “traditional” 2D, pixelated RPG. As you could imagine, it’s quite the leap from a short 2D game to one in full 3D, as Andrew explains.
“With Two Brothers we used very old software to develop called Multimedia Fusion 2. It really screwed us pretty hard. While the game would run great on our machine, we quickly found that it wasn’t the case on everyone’s machines when it was released.” To make the switch to YIIK, Ackk went the old indie standby, Unity. “So, just by upgrading to modern software such as Unity (which is what we’re using now) we found hitting a higher quality of game was MUCH easier. Our background is in 3D, we feel more comfortable here, so overall I’d say it’s just been a better experience.”
Above all, Two Brothers was just a “small hobby project” for them. For YIIK, they wanted to do something bigger. They hired freelance artists and programmers for the first time. The team would grow and shrink over the course of development, including Brigid Allanson, a concept artist and animator, Ian Bailey, level designer and scenario programmer, and Jose Alfaro, sound designer and audio producer. As well as the developers, YIIK is also full voiced, featuring a cast of veterans from Attack on Titan, Pokemon, and Planet Explorers, as well as casting director Brittany Lauda.
Working with the team has been a different experience for the brothers, and one that has paid dividends in unexpected ways. “A lot of time the best ideas come from very unexpected places. Jose Alfaro often contributed some great puzzle ideas to the game. So while he wasn’t working specifically on Game Design he’d say something that would spark something, and next thing you know it’s become an area.”
The most striking feature of YIIK has to be its art style, which won our Best Art Style of E3 Award. That style is something they came up with pretty early on. “We experimented with a lot of styles,” Andrew said of the process. “We usually start our games with a screenshot mockup. Come up with something that excites us visually, and kind of let the image tell us what’s going on. Might seem kind of backwards to some people, but we find it gives us a lot to work with.”
The surrealist nature of the art definitely comes into play Andrew tells me, but spoils prevent him from going into any more detail. However, don’t expect the surrealist graphics (or the name, for that matter) to be indicative of the type of plot you can expect to find. “What I can promise is the game has a concrete ending, with a concrete plot. Despite taking influence from post-modern literature, people will find the overall game quite coherent when they arrive at the end.”
YIIK also features a relatively diverse cast, with several women and people of color. I asked Andrew if this was a conscious decision, but he said it happened naturally. The team was inspired by several people they met in real life, including Claudio. Claudio, “the black guy with the Katana,” came about from somebody Andrew met on a bus. Though in true YIIK fashion, it was Brian, not Andrew whom I was speaking to most of the interview, who told this story.
“He was on his way to teach martial arts,” Brian said of his brother’s new friend, “Kendo I believe. He told the story of his younger brother who went missing and all of the strange things that happened after. […] Andrew describe how he looked from memory, I 3D modeled it, and we got Claudio.”
In Their Prime
Some ardent fans of Ackk might already be aware of some of the trappings, however. In September 2016, they released a demo of the game that was actually a full game unto itself. Titled Episode Prime, a self-contained quest set within the world of YIIK. This demo features a storyline unique to the demo, but does feature several levels you’ll find in the final game. This demo came about because Ackk’s publisher, Ysbryd Games, asked them to put a playable demo together for PAX West. Andrew says they were “afraid of showing anything later on in the game, as we didn’t want to spoil any of the big surprises.” This meant creating an entirely new quest that wouldn’t be featured in the final product.
While some may consider this a waste of time, Ackk isn’t among them. Feedback received from Episode Prime helped them refine the gameplay mechanics and level design. Overall, the feedback was “reasonably positive,” as Andrew understates it. They were going in the right direction in terms of “audio, visual, general dungeon design, and tone.” However, they received requests to “redo the battle math to feature lower numbers more in line with Paper Mario.” In addition, based on the feedback they decided to tweak some of the “puzzles,” their quotation marks.
Ackk was feeling good about the progress of YIIK, and the Allanson brothers were expecting to release the game in October 2016. Unfortunately, not long after their Episode Prime release, everything changed.
Tragedy, and Moving Forward
In September 2016, Andrew announced that he and Brian’s mother was sick. “She has pancreatic cancer, and it has been advancing quickly,” the post reads. “While we’re still actively working, it seems to be a terrible idea to prepare to release the game when we know she doesn’t have much time left.” The post reads matter-of-factly, but you can feel the pain behind those words. For a long time after that post, Ackk went quiet.
In March 2017, Andrew posted an update on his blog, stating he and his brother’s mother passed away last year. The post is fairly open about her passing meant for YIIK, and them personally. “With how difficult life was leading up to her death, and the actual event, it became very hard to find motivation to work on the game, and to find the time. When I did find time, the quality wasn’t there. So, I took a break.”
As Andrew told me, there were many fans who didn’t take the news of this break well. Some didn’t care about such a tragic, life-changing event, only for when they’d get to play the game. “It’s to be expected,” as Andrew put it, a lot more elegantly than I or many others probably would.
When the brothers returned to work on their game, it was just the two of them. They came back with a new perspective, having travel to Taiwan, and Andrew even getting married in that time. “We came back, played the game, and while we enjoyed it,” Andrew said. But something wasn’t right. “We felt that there were some areas that could’ve been even more special. So, we took the weakest areas of the game, and redid them until they were the best.” The two began redesigning some of the dungeons, and “redoing a lot of the graphics,” according to the blog.
Andrew isn’t sure to attribute this change in feeling to their tragedy, however. “It’s been suggested we only did this because we were grieving and not because they needed the polish. I can’t say either way, I’m a bit blind to all of it at this point.” What can be said for sure is that the brothers returned to production on YIIK with new determination. “I can say that her death really solidified my feelings that I’d like to be able to look back in life and be happy with the games I’ve created, so that is pushing me harder to keep working.”
YIIK in 2K17
Right now, YIIK is looking solid according to Cliqist contributor and man who had “too much fun writing that,” Laguna Levine, who got to play the game at E3. The Allanson Brothers weren’t at E3 themselves this year, only representatives from Ysbryd Games. “So far we’ve gotten some encouraging feedback from RPGFan and a few other sites where we appeared on some best of E3 lists,” including our own. “At this point, I don’t read too much of it though,” Andrew admitted.
And what of the overall progress of the game? “The game is done on PC and Mac with the exception of Steam Achievements and an Easy Mode. Very far along on the console versions. I plan on finishing up development very soon.” With production wrapping up, there’s a very good chance we’ll finally get the game this year. But don’t expect a release date announcement here. “Then release date will be decided so that the game can be most competitive and have a chance of making an impact. Hopefully that’s sooner than later, but it all depends on the other games that will be ready to release when we’re through certification and lotcheck.”
The Allanson brothers are already thinking about life after YIIK. Fittingly, their future lies in their past. “We’re going to move to Taiwan for a bit, and start our next project there after a small break.” How did this come about? Andrew visited Taiwan with his wife for their honeymoon last year, and it made a big impact on them. “I told Brian about it, showed him the photos, and before long we made a crazy plan to live there for a while.” How do they justify the move? “A change of scenery is nice for creativity.” You guys keep on keepin’ on.