BitSmith Games: Celtic Steampunks

Celtic Steampunks

Unique and gleefully strange, Bitsmith Games is the independent Dublin studio responsible for celtic steampunk game Ku: Shroud of the Morrigan, and the more recent FranknJohn, which features a hero with interchangeable heads.

We spoke to Owen Harris, Bitsmith Games’ designer and designated ‘Evil Overlord’ as well as lecturer at DIT’s MSc in Creative Digital Media about the Irish gaming landscape and what Bitsmith Games have in the pipeline. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about Irish indie gaming, or how to produce a video game in the Irish language, then you’re in the right place…

So FranknJohn is on ‘early release’ (until June 22) on Steam right now – how does that work?

Essentially we’re making FranknJohn without a budget, out of a love for making games. Early access gives people the option to buy and play the work in process. More importantly, this means they can say what they like and what they don’t like about it and build the game with us. For us this is the dream – it’s so better than locking yourself away in a cave for three years and working alone. It takes the mystery and pressure out of our work.

You really went down the ghoulish-but-cute route with FranknJohn. Is it aimed at a young audience, an older nostalgic audience, or both?

We really love the games we grew up on, Super NES and Mega Drive games. In them, you’d play the game with a friend – Mario and Luigi, Toejam and Earl – and explore a world together. So that’s why FranknJohn has a co-op mode where you can bring in a second character, Marianne, who is FranknJohn’s accomplice. And there’s a lot of nostalgia in there: one of the big influences was the Garbage Pail Kids. They were a set of stickers in the 80s..

 They were really gross.

They were really, really gross.

Like a proto-Ren and Stimpy!

Yes and stuff like Ren and Stimpy influenced us, and the early work of Tim Burton. We’re working with this wonderful musician called Ben Prunty from California, and he talks about the soundtrack for FranknJohn being this ‘dark carnival’. There’s a darkness going all the way through the game.

Ku really stood out as a game influenced by Irish myth, as well as for having the Irish language option.

FnJ has that too – it’s going to be the first game playable in the Irish language on Playstation. Where in Ku the Celtic influence was much more apparent, in FranknJohn you can see it in subtler things like the enemy design. It’s as Tolkien described it: Irish history is this endless ‘magic bag’ of culture we can find inspiration in.

Has nationality played a really big role in creating your games? When you crowdfunded Ku on Kickstarter, were most of the donations from Ireland?

We got a huge amount of support from our Irish base, but ultimately for a game to be sustainable it has to appeal way beyond the Irish community. Most of our purchasers on Steam come from North America, also Germany, but some were from Ireland, too. I think when someone’s playing a video game they’re not necessarily aware of where it comes from.

It seems like indie games can come out of anywhere now, and the people who make them are more diverse.

There’s so much creativity now in the game space. At the iDig festival recently people spoke about how if you want to make classical music today you’ll often end up working in games. The same goes for the creatives who might have ended up in cinema in the past making low-budget horror films–now they make horror games.


Does the game community overlap with the tech community in Ireland?

Tech isn’t an end in itself, we just use tech to create experiences in people’s heads, inside people’s nervous systems. The piece of software is just a tool to create that experience. That can create fear, or bliss, or excitement..

But so many people could say that using Paypal does the same…

Ha. But I think we have a lot more in common with the animation community, or the indie film community, or theatre, or dance, than with startups. Though there are plenty of people who would disagree with me. We have a really strong community here now–there are events every month with sometimes with over a hundred people, Facebook groups like IrishGameDev. We help each other out a lot.

Are there people who are just in it for the money?

There are, but there’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of safer industries out there. If you can make a game you’ve probably got a lot of talent, you could do programming and make more money. Games are completely unpredictable.

That’s a weird overlap with startups, actually. They seem safer and more ‘normal’, I guess, but so many startups fail…

That’s true.

Hearing about how Digit have an incubator (BitSmith are part of it) it sounds like a boom in Irish indie games coincided with the rise of startups here.

Irish games have not boomed, though I do think we’ve boomed in terms of quality. If you look at the recent A MAZE. festival there were two Irish games up for awards, Llaura Merriglitch’s Curtain and Deep (Harris’s own breathing-controlled VR game). It’s great, we’re now standing shoulder to shoulder with the world. On one end of the spectrum you have stuff like Curtain, which is militantly arty, and then you have other Irish games like Guild of Dungeoneering, which is much more of a ‘game’ game, you know? And that’s going to be the biggest critical success of this year, I predict.


Did you get Gaelgeoiri picking out grammar mistakes in the Irish language version?

We did get a few tweets about that. We’ve got the most wonderful support, though, from Foras na Gaeilge. It’s great, they’re transcribing it all into Donegal Irish. We send away an Excel Spreadsheet and they send us back the script. You just have to account for the fadas, which broke our original font on the iPad. We had to get a new one.

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