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IG@FG: Paul Helman on Horace, Being A Solo Indie Dev & Trying To Stand Out

We talk to Paul Helman about his SNES inspired game ‘Horace’, how he hopes it stands out from the crowd and about spending 6 years as a solo indie developer.

With most articles I post on our humble website, as soon as I hit that “Publish” button, I see something wrong with it. 90% of the time it’s a typo or some dodgy grammar. Sometimes it’s a factual error. Occasionally it’s something I’ve missed from a list article. The latter was true when I published our ‘60 Indie Games to look Forward To In 2019’ list and a few hours later, Paul Helman dropped me a DM on Twitter to show off his new game ‘Horace’. “Damn” I thought, watching a trailer for the 3rd time “This should have been in that list”. Since then, I’ve played the itch.io demo for Horace which confirmed to me that this game is shaping up to be something quite special.

In Paul’s own words, Horace is “a story driven, pixel platform adventure game. Think cinematic cut scenes but with little pixel guys all tied together with traversal challenges that will test your brain as much as your abilities! I’d like to think of it as a AAA SNES title.”

I did a little research on Paul Helman and discovered that he’d been an artist on one of my all-time favourite games – The Die Hard Trilogy – and had worked on the graphics team for a guilty pleasure of mine, Agent Hugo: Lemoon Twist (don’t judge me, I was really into anthropomorphic 3D platformers in my teens… and 20’s…and now my 30’s). Paul agreed to answer some of the questions I had about Horace and it’s development, all of which you can read here;

FingerGuns: What inspired you to develop Horace?

Paul Helman: I suppose it boils down to making the game that I always wanted to play. My taste is somewhat stuck in the 80’s and early 90’s. I loved games like Jet Set Willy, but like a lot of the classic games from that era, a lot of what is good about that game is what the player projects onto those basic graphics themselves. You fill in the gaps with your own imagination. So I got to thinking, what if you didn’t have to?

Another part of this is that platform games don’t typically have great stories. Our princess is in another castle, etc. Indie games now are doing interesting things here, such as Shovel Knight, Celeste and Undertale. But I wanted something more cinematic. I wanted the emotional connection I got from playing Final Fantasy VI or IX all those years ago. Get it all up there on the screen. No speech bubbles, full cut scenes. Schedule-wise it’s turned out to be absolute insanity, but it gives the game a flavour all of its own.

And I wanted it to have the full spectrum of emotions, like classic films, reflect a lot of pop culture influences from the 80’s and 90’s. Not always obvious stuff either. The story and character design is somewhat inspired by the Peter Sellers film Being There.

“One day I watched Indie Game: The Movie, and it sparked something inside me. I wasn’t satisfied being a small cog in huge faceless machines, and I needed to do my own thing.”

FG: You’ve been developing Horace for 5 years. Has your vision for the game changed during that time? And how do you maintain your motivation?

PH: It’s actually just over 6 years now! To be honest the vision hasn’t really changed, I’ve refined and added plenty of gameplay but the core ‘Robot goes on platforming adventure’ has always remained. As far as motivation goes, I’ll need to give you a bit of my back story. I got my first job at 17, and worked on Die Hard Trilogy for PS1, Sega Saturn and PC. Probe was a bit of a joke to work for so I left after a couple of years and went onto work at a studio called Picturehouse but when our contract with Sony was up I decided I no longer wanted to commute 3-4 hours a day so started freelancing from home on a load of stuff for WWE, Disney and the BBC, a couple of Doctor Who games that I was never paid fully for. It was paying the bills but was pretty soul destroying.

Then one day I watched Indie Game: The Movie, and it sparked something inside me. I wasn’t satisfied being a small cog in huge faceless machines, and I needed to do my own thing. And thus, the seeds of Horace were sown.

FG: You’ve currently got a demo available for Horace up on itch.io which people have been providing feedback on. How valuable has this been?

The feedback we’ve had has been useful. But in all honesty, it’s so difficult to get noticed in the games landscape of now. Plenty of devs are a lot better at selling their game than I am. Really, I’m a massive hermit who literally avoided social media until friends forced me to sign up to things to publicise the demo! Plus I’m so busy I barely even get time to open Twitter most days.

The important thing is people seem to like it. The day we put the demo live I was terrified. I was five years in, and what if people thought it was shit? But they seem to like it, thank goodness.

FG: The demo of Horace contains a lot of humour but eludes to a quite powerful, potentially sad story in the main game. How have you found balancing those elements?

PH: As I mentioned, I’ve been in game dev for a good couple of decades but I came to it from the art side of things (I’m an artist / musician if you look at previous game credits) so I literally had to learn to code to make the game initially. Essentially, all the story elements have come about while I’ve been driving myself insane reading various code things. When the gameplay / coding side of things get tough though I retreat to the animation, story and music side of things! So there’s been plenty of opportunities for me to ‘get sidetracked’ by other elements of the game.

FG: Do you find it difficult being a solo developer or do you find this helps you maintain your own vision for the project?

I do like working by myself, I have a friend who has helped out massively code wise but otherwise I prefer doing it all myself. Working this way makes it very easy to add in new areas or gameplay if I decide I need it without having to spend a day explaining to other people. It’s lots of work but obviously I know what I want to happen so it’s then just a case of sitting down and actually doing it.

FG: I must say, I really enjoyed the demo for Horace and found it packed full of charm and personality. It is however, entering quite a crowded genre. Are you worried about it finding an audience?

PH: Yes! Obviously there are many modern platformers with more coming out each month, the main thing that makes Horace stand out is the story. I love a good platformer but I often find myself getting bored with nothing pulling me forwards, especially when the going gets tough. So I figured a decent story would help drive the player along further into the game.

 

FG: Are you looking to self-publish Horace or are you looking for a publishing partner?

I’m in discussions with a publisher now, but I’m still 50/50 on it. The game is pretty much complete bar fixing the bugs, but I’m not confident I know how to get it noticed. If I can get the right deal to preserve my vision for the game and get help with what I don’t know, I’d consider it.

FG: Finally, if the Paul Helman of today could tell the ‘about to start development of Horace’ Paul Helman of 5 years ago one thing, what would it be?

DON’T PANIC! I constantly worry! I suppose that is the one thing about working by myself. It’s very easy to get lost in my own fears etc, so I guess I would say the old cliche ‘Keep calm and carry on!’

You can follow the development of Horace by following Paul on Twitter (I highly advise you do so. His Gif game is A+) and there’s a demo available for the game on itch.io which can be found here.


IG@FG (or ‘Indie Games @ Finger Guns’) is a new irregular feature exploring the world of indie games. To keep up to date, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook

Sean Davies

Ungrateful little yuppie larvae. 30-something father to 5. Once ate 32 slices of pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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