Joost van Dongen Interview
Joost van Dongen works for Ronimo Games, an independent developer that has thus far released Swords & Soldiers to critical acclaim, and have a second game (Awesomenauts) in the works. The developer is comprised of a group of students from the Utrecht School of the Arts who under the moniker of Banana Games made the original de Blob while still studying which was then snapped up by THQ and made into a fully-fledged and critically successful Wii retail release that sold well enough to receive a multiplatform sequel.
Joost van Dongen, would you like to introduce yourself better than I did?
Nope, you did pretty well! Only thing to add is that at Ronimo Games, I am lead programmer.
How are those de Blob royalties coming along?
We don’t get any royalties on De Blob. They paid us a fixed amount to buy all the rights and that’s it. Pretty much the best we could get, since we were still students at the time.
Are you fans of what THQ made of your concept?
Absolutely! They changed our Blob a lot, but I really like the result! Especially the music is awesome, with changing solo instruments depending on which colour you are painting with. And the production values are really high: de Blob is amongst the biggest games on the Wii in terms of polish and technology, so I am really happy and proud that they chose to execute de Blob so well!
Now, onto more important matters: Proun! First things first:
in the credits of Proun it lists Huub van Summeren as the inventor of
the concept. What was it that made you so attracted to someone else’s
concept that meant you stuck with the project for six years?
Well, he didn’t come up with the entire concept. He came up with the gameplay concept: rotate around a cable to avoid obstacles. A really nice idea that I had a lot of fun working with. Huub doesn’t build games himself, so he didn’t mind me using his concept. But Proun quickly grew to a lot more than that, especially when I arrived at its current graphical style. In the end game development is more about the execution and the details than about the one-sentence elevator pitch.
And what does Huub think of it?
Huub is a good friend of mine and he thinks it’s really cool that I built this on top of his core idea!
Now, obviously the Prounen series of avant-garde art is a big
inspiration, but in the credits it lists a few other paintings as
inspiration, and visually many of the tracks make me think more of some
of the non-Prounen paintings, especially Kandinsky, but moved into 3D.
Was it a case of picking and choosing elements from all these different
styles, or did you try and imitate a certain style more than others?
The Prounen were mainly an inspiration for the name, not so much for the graphics. The graphics are much more inspired by Kandinsky and Mondriaan, especially Kandinsky. I don’t think this is a case of imitation, though: by moving into 3D, the final result looks really different to Kandinsky’s works. They have things in common, but there are also big differences. In the end art always builds on the shoulders of previous artists (although some artists may deny this, saying they are totally unique) and Proun is no different. It takes inspiration from Kandinsky and turns that into something new.
I thought the way you took these concepts into three
dimensions was very well done, did you take much influence from the
Prounen installations and other avant-garde geometric sculptures as you
tried to move from 2D to 3D?
Nope, not really. Most of the inspiration came from 2D artworks, the translation to 3D is entirely my own.
Another thing I was a big fan of visually was that you didn’t
just move from 2D to 3D: you really utilised movement very well which I
think elevated the visuals from being an imitation to a wonderful new
interpretation of some of the concepts found in the paintings that
inspired you. Were you trying to make Proun in some ways a moving
interpretation of these concepts, rather than just a 3D interpretation
or was it more about making a game out of it?
The gameplay is at the centre, but movement is important as well. However, when I think of movement in Proun, I think of something quite different to speed. I am fascinated by how shapes change when you look at them from different perspectives. Under some angles objects align, while under other angles they obscure each other or become more chaotic. I played a lot with that in Proun: balanced compositions move into shape briefly as you pass them by, and then quickly become more distorted as you see the objects under another angle, only to form something new right away.
I was reading a review of Proun and the reviewer in question
said that the game was very much reflex-based; this is the opposite to
my experience of the game on the faster speeds: to me it’s entirely
about learning the track and the racing line. It actually reminded me
far more of the Gran Turismos of this world than the WipEouts. Did you
take much inspiration from other racing games? Or for that matter
simulation racing games? Aesthetically the comparison seems a little
strange I am sure, so my apologies!
Nope, racing games were hardly any inspiration. The gameplay doesn’t really have any big inspirations, but for as much as there are any, they are mainly in rhythm games. A lot of the design comes from rhythmic movements and flows. Right-left-left-right-left-left. Varying rhythms and more chaotic sequences are key to the gameplay design. I also tried to play a lot with pacing, especially with fast sections with relaxed sections in between.
Another thing about Proun which I thought was a wonderful
touch was the music. What inspired you to go with a jazz soundtrack
rather than something more electronic which in theory I’m sure would
have fitted the style of Proun better? (Though in practice I don’t think
any other style would have fitted better!)
To me Proun is very much about joy. The joy of the vibrant colours and compositions, the exhilaration of avoiding the obstacles at high speeds. I wanted the music to fit that feeling, while at the same time having a fast beat. An instrumental mix of bigband and rockabilly sounds just felt great. Before writing the music, I played Proun with music from the Brian Setzer Orchestra and that kind of music just turned out to feel great with the gameplay. Techno is more brutal, less cheerful, so it wouldn’t fit the emotions I wanted the player to feel while playing the game.
You also released the game in a pay-what-you-want scheme. How
have people responded to this? Have the sales reached expectation—or
perhaps exceeded them? I know that there was downtime on the server due
to it being overloaded with people, but how many of them were paying
Lots of people have played, but few have paid. So since Proun was not intended as a commercial thing in the first place, it is an enormous success. But financially Pay What You Want may not have been the best choice.
What was the average amount people paid?
I’ll reveal that on my blog soon.
Any chance of you making and releasing any more tracks?
There is a lot more Proun to come at some point, but that may take some time.
Finally, you’ve said that Proun is self-expression—it’s your
game! At its core, what do you think you were trying to express in
Proun—be it through the gameplay or the aesthetics?
Love for abstract art and experimentation.
Now onto Ronimo, Swords & Soldiers and Awesomenauts!
I just started playing Swords and & Soldiers recently,
and it’s already become a favourite of mine! Is there any chance of a
sequel or new campaigns?
I expect there will be more of Swords & Soldiers at some point, but there is nothing to announce right now. We are focussing all our efforts on Awesomenauts at the moment.
Is there anything particularly special about the medium that
has meant that both Ronimo’s games thus far are 2D, or is it more of a
We love 2D, but we would also love to do 3D at some point, so it is a combination. 3D is way more expensive and more work to do.
Are there any plans for a 3D game in the future?
Not right now, but I would like to add support for basic 3D objects to our engine (the Ronitech) at some point, so that we can mix 2D and 3D more.
Any plans for a future Steam release of Awesomenauts?
We would love to see the game on Steam, but right now we are focussing only on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Will there be a single player mode?
There is a tutorial and you can play against bots to try out new heroes, upgrades and tactics, but the core game is really online.
Will there be any local multiplayer?
We have three player splitscreen, so you can form an entire team on your couch and challenge others online. This is a lot of fun!
Though we only have a trailer to go on, in some ways
Awesomenauts looks more mainstream than Ronimo’s previous games. Swords
and Soldiers took a traditionally 3D genre into a 2D perspective, and de
Blob used music and colour in a clever way. Are there any interesting
twists in Awesomenauts that were not apparent in the trailer that you
could tell us about?
Awesomenauts is really just as innovative as Swords & Soldiers. Swords & Soldiers took traditional top-down strategy games and translated that to side-scrolling 2D in a really intuitive way. With Awesomenauts, we are taking the MOBA genre, which are top-down games like League of Legends (LoL) and Defence of the Ancients (DotA), and translating that to a 2D platforming game. That poses a lot of difficult design choices, since lots of mechanics change or don’t work for platforming. At the same time, we are also trying to streamline the genre. MOBA games are usually incredibly complex to get into, and we have tried to change some mechanics to make them more understandable, while keeping the same deep gameplay. Especially the levelling during a match works pretty differently in Awesomenauts.
Any other little tidbits about Awesomenauts that you could tell us?
Many people seem to overlook the incredible depth of Awesomenauts’ gameplay: the combinations of heroes, tactics and upgrades make it really interesting to experiment and try to find the ultimate load-out. We have more than a hundred upgrades and some are really game-changing, so trying everything out is really interesting and fun!
Please tell me the whole soundtrack will be as awesome as the theme song on the trailer!
It is! We have theme songs for each of the six heroes in the game, and lots of songs for other things as well! Awesomenauts really has an awesome soundtrack!
Thank you for your time, Joost and best of luck to you and Ronimo games with the upcoming Awesomenauts