Tag Archives: GameDev

Behind The Art Of Penarium. part 1

Penarium is out. We spent over two years developing this game. I was the lead artist. It’s time to look back at the artwork and see what I did to illustrate a sadistic circus extravaganza.

PNR_RT_paintings copy

The initial plan

Two years ago my friends came to me saying they wanted to make a platformer where the player was stuck in one screen. There were no enemies, the player had to dodge all kinds of deathtraps coming from the top and bottom. Also: It was set at the circus.

Honestly I wasn’t listening until I heard the word ‘circus’ and then I was instantly on board. I’m a fan of mystery stuff and the circus is one of those places that has existed before most forms of entertainment. The team’s inspiration was a feature film called Felix ‘The Cat, The Movie’. A 80’s cartoon full of experimental stuff. At one point in the movie the protagonist gets trapped into a circus led by an evil wizard. Specifically the audience was something I was told to look at. It’s a ragtag group of creepy soulless figures. The team wanted to see that scary not quite human audience back in the game. I was so on board with this. So on board.

At this point there wasn’t even a game title yet. Just a prototype which was an offspring of another prototype. A platformer where the top and bottom parts were constantly changing and where the player had to fight different kinds of enemies. I also made the mockup art for it.


But we started from scratch again. Here we were at the start of a huge complex undertaking. A videogame. Our biggest one yet. There were so many things yet to be done. Good thing people are not able to grasp the giant pile of tasks and trials that need to be solved in order to make something like this. I felt no burden at all. I just started at the beginning.

The Beginning

So what is the beginning? Colours! Colours decide flavour. At that time I wasn’t very good with colours so I figured I’d get that right first. What colours? There are billions of them. The lead I had was ‘old circus’ and ‘creepy’ so I dug back up a show I loved and had exactly those two ingredients; Carnivale, about a traveling circus in a 1930’s America. There was much to learn from this.  We would later on in the project have discussions about what time and place Penarium is set and there is still no consensus. I myself like to place it in 1920’s Romania.


There’s no exact science telling you what colours remind people of a certain place or time. I just followed my guts, watched the show and froze the screen when a colour spoke to me. It could have been somewhere in the background. The colour of a tent canvas or a teapot. Then I’d make a ‘note’ of it by making a dot of that colour in Photoshop. Essentially ending with something that is both a palette and a mood board. This is not the scientific way.

An important question when doing pixel art is always whether or not to use outline. Having outline can increase visibility but it also flattens the grander picture. In all honesty I can’t remember why I chose to do most of the game without outline. It felt right at the time.

When people ask me about my inspiration for Penarium I say ‘Carnivale’ and the Insane Clown Posse . Twelve year old me thought that was the coolest thing. The sinister, occult universe they described in their songs always spoke to me and it stuck. Other games were Redneck Rampage for lovely sky and Blood. Which also had a dark carnival section. And then there was Dik Trom.


We wanted to create an unusual hero. One whose juxtaposition between his physique and his athletic performance would create a comical effect. This is a reference to the earliest days of silent movies when a certain genre reigned supreme: slapstick. Penarium is what you’d get if Laurel and Hardy was really brutal. In hindsight it’s mean, but at the time plus-sized male characters were more represented in cartoons and movies. Often for comical effect. The heavier person would always be the less agile, less tactile. There is however a Dutch book series in which gained popularity is the late 1800’s in which the protagonist was a heavy kid that was always up to shenanigans. This was a big contrast to the then usual obedient characters. His body type was more a display of rebellion than a comedic device at his own expense. I wanted to bring that back in Penarium.


But more importantly, we needed a character you felt sympathy for when he would die. There’s lots of dying in this game.Below is my first sprite where I felt we were on to something. I gave him a red hairdo because I have a friend who worked at a circus fair who also had red hair. It’s that simple. My friend’s name is Wilco but we call him Willy. And so the name for the game’s character was born.

I also looked at fabric. Denim was still coming in at the time but a brown pair of pants looked more suited for the time. The blue shirt was a colour straight from the palette. The bracer/suspender  is a reference to Dik Trom.

First test

I used the palette to start working on the background levels. I used wood, rope, canvas. All painted in the washed out dark reds and greens I learned from research. The early drafts were a bit too sinister. I painted a dark dark carnival but the team feared the skulls I made gave players the wrong idea. Another thing I noticed was that it was very hard for me to fill the set resolution space with pixels and that it felt too..mature. The team initially opted for a pixel art style because the gameplay resembled that of brutally unforgiving platformers from the NES/SNES days but the resolution we started in turned out to be too high to communicate that and too hard for me to fill up. It became too detailed. More so, the clear ‘broad areas of untextured colour’ style I used began to show its weak spots. We decided to cut the game’s resolution in half. This meant that I got only half a screen to fill and pixels would look even bigger in the game because it would always be rendered full screen.

PNR_Circustent02That meant Willy had to be redrawn in half the size. It gave me a chance to adjust some things and etch his personality even more. There was less room for detail so only the traits that really mattered would make it through. Gone were the buckteeth and while I was at it I tried out some other ideas. The one I settled on had red hair and a blue shirt. It was just the simplest figure and felt the most ‘retro game icon’ to me. Also a striped shirt might prove more work to animate later on.



I was content with what I had until halfway into the project when we decided it might be a good idea to refine the design. The idea was to make him less square and more round. That’s when I came up with this.

third willy

This is Willy’s final form. Don’t you just want to give this kid a hug? He needs it. An idea that runs through the whole game is that the story of Willy is like the bible story of Job. A man whose faith was tested by God pouring a seemingly endless barrage of misery over him. God wanted to see when Job gave up, Penarium wants to see when the player gives up. We’re not just throwing around analogies here. I’ll get more into this in a later post.

The Director

Being almost the only two characters in the game I wanted a contrast between Willy and The Director, which during development I called Gonzo, though that is not his name in the game. On first sight The Director is everything Willy is not. He is the clear enemy and he is nothing like the player (Willy), Gonzo talks, Willy is quiet. Gonzo is tall and thin, Willy is short and broad. Gonzo has to look like obvious bad news so the cutscenes where Willy blindly follows him become even more frustrating.


Where Willy was easy to design the Director was hard. I struggled with the director because it was very hard for me to not make him look like V For Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes. The trademark signs of a circus director or ringleader are a long suit and a top hat and often a moustache. Add to that the required (boss’s orders) mask and it’s hard not to think of Guy Fawkes. I tried working without a moustache but that seemed to give the whole character less menace. I like him as a character but I have to admit most of his appeal stems from the resemblance to Guy Fawkes. It needs to be said that Gonzo was designed much later into the project than Willy and I had less time to work him out. I am curious after what would come out if I decided to redesign the character.

Character design is fun to do and having as much time as I did for designing Willy helped a lot. There are three more characters I’ll discuss in the future. One whose role was in the end reduced to a mere detail, much to my sadness. All that and more will be revealed in the following parts of Behind The Art Of Penarium.

Did I mention Penarium is out?

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GDC is not the coolest thing ever.

I went to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It’s a big conference. It was fun and interesting but it wasn’t all that great. I will tell you the why but first: Why did I decide to fly to the other side of the planet and spend over a €1000 for the largest game developer conference there is? Because I thought it would help me make new contacts, Profile myself as a game maker and spread word about the two games I’m working on. One of these games did not fare so well.

First there is Penarium which I make with my friends at Self Made Miracle It’s a crazy arcade survival platformer. Words don’t do it justice so here’s a trailer:

We got invited to pitch the game to representatives of a major game/console manufacturer in a hotel conference room. This is one of the things we did. The presentation was very informal and the other side showed a neutral/positive reception. We can’t really tie any conclusions to it yet. The other game is Mutant Gangland. A turn-based strategy game for mobile and desktop. Inspired on Advance Wars and set in a future war between robots and mutants. I make this game with Bacioiu and Grace.

I love this game but not many people got to see it. Penarium is easy to introduce to people. It’s a platformer with almost no premise but ‘survive’ and ‘collect barrels’ through jumping an running. Mutant Gangland is harder. Most turn-based games have unique mechanics that only show their elegance after multiple turns. It requires easing and explaining and on a conference not everybody has time for that. I feel like this is one of the reasons Mutant Gangland did not get the attention it deserves and I need to find a way to fix that for future events. Another reason is that I found it very hard to spread word about two games simultaneously. Meeting new people (and potential future supporters) on the  conference floor can be a very short ordeal. When I meet someone who asks me what games I make I feel like the time shortage forces me to pick just one. Most of the times I picked the instantly understandable one: Penarium.

I also booked the trip, the tickets and the hotel together with the Penarium team. Often this conference felt like a Penarium mission and it would feel like a jerk move to plug another game during that. I need to find a solution for this because I really love both games. On the other hand the TBS (turn-based strategy) genre has some hardcore fans. Some people straight up love these games. I think it’s up to me to find those people and maybe a conference is not the best place for that. Or maybe I just don’t know who made what cool strategy game and did I just not pull the right people on their sleeves. A good move for next time would be to get in touch with the people at 17Bit who made the extremely amusing Skulls Of The Shogun or the people from Xcom. They were probably there at the conference and it hurts my head just thinking about this in hindsight.

I think that’s the one great thing about GDC. There’s a lot of people there and if you really want to hook up with them you can. I saw many people who I think I know somehow. I just didn’t know what to say to them. Maybe it just feels unnatural to me to force myself into a conversation or to steer a conversation to “play my game!”. Not everybody has. I met some people who seamlessly eased a nice conversation into just basically boasting about all the things they did and what they were known for. I also heard a lot of namedropping. Like “I went to school with famous dude X”. This was often followed by a short moment of silence because I don’t know famous dude X. I am an ostrich. Maybe on purpose. Maybe I just want to make friends and maybe those friends will one day be supporters. Maybe that’s why Mutant Gangland rolled so slow.


From http://www.andrewle.com/about

I also noticed how people come to this conference with various intentions. Before I went there I thought everybody at the GDC would have the same mission as us: To show the world what they are working on, Spreading the word hoping someone would pick it up. But no: We booked 3 beds in a 4 bed room and the fourth guest turned out to be a Ohio student and artist who also attended the conference. His goal was to find a job but he also took part in many a drinking game with his fellow classmates who also slept in the hostel. It’s not that he did not take this seriously but the way things were done is going to the conference floor at day, Going by all the career booths to show his portfolio, And go out to a beer party at night. Get boozed up. Hope to randomly run into a bigshot and then maybe get a job offer somehow.

There are also people who attend the show to learn things. There are a lot of talks being given and some of them can be extremely useful. I myself have a hard time sitting still on a chair. This is one of the reason I did not go the IGF Awards, Which is apparently some kind of relevant award show for games. I never heard of it before but it looked like a bunch of people sitting in a giant hallway listening to one category after another. I thought that to be a detraction from my mission. We saw this GDC as our only shot to show the world what we are up to. We need to actively work and lobby our game in order for it to generate results. Then there are the AAA studio people. The programmers, designers and artists who are already in the clear. Their PR person takes care of all the talking and for these folks GDC is just one big school trip where every night is about partying for the sake of partying. We party too. But only in the hopes we get to make connections somehow.

This brings me to the next point: Don’t rule people out based on their appearance. First of all because this is a vain and mean thing to do and second because everybody is a potential friend and supporter. We went to a dance party in an industrial area. The doorman sat on a stool and he looked pretty savage. He was a big guy with spiked bracelets. He had had piercings and tattoos all over his face and body. He wore a shirt with a skull on it and had a list with names of people who were allowed in. When we were up he asked us if we made games and gave us all his business card with a huge Sony logo. This badass brutal doorman worked at Sony and just managed a club as a side thing. We did not know this but we were friendly and it paid off. So be friendly, Always.

It’s also safe to be careful about what street you walk in the dark. San Francisco has a dark side. Many drunks and addicts roam the street and many homeless people also. I have no problem with this but some are extremely persistent about getting your money. Like walking along with me  while begging for change, Not taking ‘no’ for an answer and shouting “f*ck you you one armed b*tch” when they give up. To even beating  you up and taking your wallet after dark. This did not happen to me but it happened to others in seemingly safe areas. I think it’s best to not travel alone in the evening and night.

Something I need to better prepare next time is the reservations for the parties. The five days of GDC go like this: Until 6 PM the conference floor is open and in the evening there are multiple parties spread all over the city. All of these need reservations and I felt this was always this buzz around the  air of “Where are you going?”. Always that feeling I might miss out on the coolest crew or the hippest party. It’s not good for me at all. Also: going out for five days is a row is extremely tiring.

So tiring that I was sick twice during my stay in San Francisco. I think due to a number of reasons, I didn’t sleep enough, I did somehow not get enough vitamins and I came across a lot of people.  And man San Francisco can be expensive! Somehow a bowl of fruit was one of the rarest and most pricey things on many menus. At all the places I went people looked at me like I was crazy when I said “Just fruit”. Sodas are cheap though. You can get cola everywhere and I paid many visits to the deli across our hostel. I thought Cola, with all its bubbles and chemicals would help me fight the cold. I’m not sure it did.

Then there is the Indie hostel. Somewhere in time one of San Francisco’s 57890 hostels was dubbed The Indie Hostel. You have to make reservation quite early. It’s pricier than the surrounding hostels and it’s chock full of game people. If you haven’t booked at the hostel you can’t get in though (as in all SF hostels). But reading from Twitter it seems like the most fun place in the world. Meetings, parties, Cool indies hanging out. It’s all there and if you haven’t booked you’re missing out. There’s people tweeting about how much fun they are having, Making inside jokes about things nobody understands. It makes me feel left out and I can totally understand if the rest of the world would rather turn Twitter off during the week of GDC.

I believe there are a number of people saying their GDC was super awesome because they thought it was so but I also believe there is an even greater number of people who had a mediocre GDC but will still say it was super awesome because everyone else says it was super awesome. For me it was just mediocre. It should’ve prepared better but even then I doubt I’d have much from from seeing way too much faces for five days. Afterwards I’m still not sure the total experience paid off. Maybe this is a thing that benefits from repetition. One of the days I saw a kid with a laptop sitting outside asking passers by if they would play his game. Many people did and he paid $0 for it. He never bought a GDC ticket. He just sat outside hustling his game. For now that kid is my hero.




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