Aleks Kuzmanovic has been working on his debut title Unworthy over two and a half years now. He’s (hopefully) a couple months away from release and isn’t sure if leaving his civil engineering job to pursue his passion for game development full time will be viable. But with his savings from his time as an engineer to support him, he’s pursuing a career as a full-time indie developer.
Unworthy combines aspects of his favourite genres with an art style and design that’s within his skill set, or at least his skillset at the start of development. It’s a Metroidvania title without jumping. A simple design constraint that challenges standards in a genre that’s been explored for over 30 years.
I first discovered Unworthy on Twitter with a tantalizing gif of a monochromatic duel between a two fighters. Dashing back and forth getting in jabs was in vain, as the one fighter started to lose they tried escaping on a ladder but was cut down. It was brutal, and I wanted to know more.
I’ve kept up with Unworthy since then and wanting to know more about the game and the talent behind led to an interview with the solo designer Aleksandar Kuzmanovic.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
[Stephan] Why did you get into games?
[Aleks] My parents immigrated here from Serbia over 20 years ago. At that point, games were still a foreign concept to me. But I remember seeing the Super Nintendo at, I think at that time it was a K-Mart I don’t think Wal-Mart was around yet, and they had those little console booths. It was Donkey Kong for Super Nintendo. I went over and I was seeing kids playing. They were controlling moving pictures on a screen and I thought it was amazing. So I tried it. I sat there playing Donkey Kong for an hour and I thought “Man, I really want this game.”
My parents ended up getting me a Super Nintendo maybe not that Christmas but the Christmas after. I was actually disappointed because I didn’t get Donkey Kong Country with it, it came with Super Mario World. At that time I was like “Aw man Super Mario World is stupid I want Donkey Kong!” Now I’m like “Well, Super Mario World is amazing!” So I got the better deal there. That was my first exposure to video games. And I guess since then it honestly hasn’t stopped, it’s been going from Super Nintendo to PC to Nintendo 64 to Xbox and now PS4. That’s where it started and what got me into playing video games to begin with.
[Stephan] When did you decide to start making your own games?
[Aleks] A little later. It’s a little strange because I went to university for engineering. I was brought up in a pretty traditional household with the idea of “If you’re not going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer you’re pretty much condemned to be a failure for the rest of your life.”
[Stephan] “Oh Jeez…”
[Aleks] Yeah, one of those things. So I never really went for anything else, but I’ve always enjoyed drawing and imagining ideas for video games. I was really big into Defense of the Ancients when it was still on Warcraft 3 as a custom map. I was part of the beta community and at that time I didn’t know anything about programming but I loved contributing my ideas to heroes and stuff. I’ve always been like “Ahh I want to make something!” and come up with these cool mechanics, moves, characters, stories and whatever…
Basically, I went into engineering, got my undergrad, stayed for a masters in civil engineering, worked for about a year and then just wasn’t feeling the bureaucratic nature of it. A lot of it wasn’t about problem-solving, it didn’t meet my expectations. Eventually, my girlfriend at the time (who’s now my fiancee) realized I wasn’t happy with this stuff. She noticed I’d come home and play video games and that was making me happy. So she finally told me “Well, why don’t you try making video games instead? A lot of people do it and seem to make a career out of it.”
Whether it’s a smart decision or not I don’t know yet, I can’t comment on that. But yeah I kind of just took a leap of faith based on her advice and jumped into trying to make video games. Here I am now, two and a half years later working on this game and hopefully releasing it soon.
[Stephan] So Unworthy is your first game?
[Aleks] It’s my first real game, I released another game recently on Steam I made in 3 weeks. It was a precursor to try and figure out how Steam as a platform works so that I don’t have too many problems when I’m launching Unworthy. It would be a shame if after two and a half years to botch it because I didn’t know how to integrate with Steam or didn’t have the foresight to make the right decisions.
So I released that and I’ve made a bunch of smaller games and prototypes and done game jams here and there, but this will be my first what I would call “proper game.”
[Stephan] What’s the other game on Steam called?
[Aleks] Gunlock, it’s this little arena, kind of inspired by Super Crate Box and Super Mario, score-chaser.
[Stephan] What’s your elevator pitch for Unworthy?
[Aleks] It’s a Metroidvania that’s very combat-focused and meticulous on enemy AI, enemy design and the way that you interact with enemies through combat.
[Stephan] You say on the game’s site it’s a “Metroidvania without jumping.” Why is it important to make that distinction?
[Aleks] Because I think every other Metroidvania ever made has had jumping (laughs).
[Stephan] So you wanted to see what you could do with that genre without that mechanic?
[Aleks] I actually started a different game before this. It was my first attempts at pixel art and like a colourful, traditional pixel art style of games. It’s called Runic. It looks much more like Castlevania. I spent probably 3 or 4 months working on it and I designed a few enemies. I really wanted it to be more combat heavy than something like Symphony of the Night, which is a wonderful game but it’s really a lot more about the exploration and there isn’t that much challenge in terms of the actual game. And when it is challenging it usually ends up becoming about a bullet-hell situation where there’s too many things flooding the screen so you can’t actually find a safe space to dodge it. It’s not so much about you reacting to an enemy.
In comparison to something like Dark Souls where there’s never really a bullet-hell situation, it’s not like I have bullets on the screen and I don’t know where I’m going to go because there’s no safe spot. You need proper timing and reaction, it feels a lot more combat heavy and realistic.
That’s what I wanted to go for, but then I realized when I was doing this in the 2D genre it’s very easy to just jump over enemies. And if it’s too hard most players, and I saw this, if it’s too hard they’re like “All right screw it, I’m not going to fight this guy I’m just going to jump over it.” I feel that makes it worse than the bullet-hell situation because now you’re not having them engage in any challenge at all. It’s just completely skipping the game… it’s like the designer telling me “I don’t want you to play this game.”
I realized if jumping is a problem, would this work without jumping and could it be done, and what am I losing by taking away jumping. And you do lose a lot by taking away jumping like platforming aspects of a Metroidvania. But you do stand to gain a lot in the way the combat pans out, which was a lot of people’s comment. It’s just a much more grindy, gritty combat very similar to Dark Souls where it’s heavy and feels engaging. But in between combat the game stands to lose a bit of what traditional Metroidvania games have. In that regard, there’s a lot more combat because I need to make sure the player’s engaged.
[Stephan] I like that, it’s interesting because I just played Samus Returns last year, the new Metroid game, and I really like a lot of the combat but when I look other people playing online no one fights the enemies they just speed through the stage jumping over everything. Why even have enemies at that point?
[Aleks] Yeah. It’s a common and okay vein of game design that a lot of players aren’t interested in just killing enemies. You just get attracted to it because you’re interested in loot. If you do kill this enemy you’re rewarded so players end up doing it.
But it’s not necessarily the route I want to go through because a player experiences a game differently. If they’re killing enemies because of a reward, and I’m not saying I’m a sadist guy here that wants to ruin your experience or something, but like when you’re playing Dark Souls they don’t fight the enemies so much because of they want the loot drop or they want the reward it’s because they’re like “oh man I gotta kill this guy or he’s going to end up killing me.” And you get a certain adrenaline rush and a certain fear of the game, fear’s probably not the right word, but like you know, caution or whatever you want to call it, that you don’t typically get in a Metroidvania.
[Stephan] You have to pay more attention.
[Stephan] The site for Unworthy says “Prepare to die… A lot.”
[Aleks] The only reason I put “Prepare to die… A lot” was because I feel like you don’t want to call yourself a Souls-like. But when I see “Prepare to die” I immediately think of all the stuff that’s going into the background, you can kind of see that you’re tying yourself to Dark Souls. From a marketing perspective, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. As many people as there are who say “Oh my god another Souls-like” these are the same people who probably, most of the time, don’t want to play Dark Souls games. And that’s not really my target audience.
[Stephan] Using “Prepare to Die” on your site hopefully would appeal to those who like Dark Souls and therefore would probably like your game too.
[Aleks] I think it would just trigger it right away and anybody who’s seen it pretty much has been able to say “Oh this is 2D Dark Souls.” And I have no problem with them saying that. I’m not going to be like “Oh this is my game” like somehow I’m going to get stuck up on it like “Oh you’re crapping on my creative vision.” Like really it is inspired by Dark Souls. I love Dark Souls. I wanted to recreate that same feel in a 2D setting. That’s where it stems from and I don’t have a problem. Using “Prepare to Die” says “Yeah this game is going to be a lot like Dark Souls.”
[Stephan] I like that and I definitely got that from reading your site and watching the trailer I see that. Were there any other inspirations, either games or other media, for Unworthy? Either in the gameplay or visuals?
[Aleks] The visuals were inspired by necessity, I suppose.
Originally, and this was kind of poked at for the longest time, in the beginning by people telling me “Oh you’re copying this guy.” I know him he’s a good friend of mine, too. So it’s like a) if I was copying he was very on board with it but b) you can’t steal style, like you can get inspired by them but it’s not like you ripping on somebody’s sprites.
So my friend Benjamin Anderson who does tutorials for Gamemaker, Heartbeast (@uheartbeast) is what most people would know him by, made a Ludum dare entry. It was a little simple, go back and forth, roll around game where you play as a skeleton and you kill some enemies in an infinite generation. I saw that art style I was like “Wow this looks pretty good.” It was just this grayscale-ish style that looks a lot similar to Unworthy but I think given that it was a game jam thing it was a lot less refined.
[Aleks] I looked and I was like “Okay this conveys images kinda cool, it also looks distinct in that it stands out from the rest of colour pixel art and I think it really sells that gritty, dark ambience better than any colour pixel art is usually going to do.” There’s really something grim about this particular style, this is what I’m going for and generally, it’s more efficient than colour pixel art.
This is something I’ve been struggling with when I was working on Runic at the time where I was like “Man, if I continue this game it’s going to take me another ten years to develop” because no matter what anybody says like people go online and tell you “All these indies are doing pixel art because it’s cheap or whatever.” A bunch of pixel art can be cheap, but certain pixel art if you cross a certain threshold becomes way more time consuming then any HD art.
If you look at a game like Chasm, that is suicide to do a game with that fidelity of pixel art like that. It takes a lot of people to do it and it’s a lot more time-consuming to do that then it would be to, for example, a game like Hollow Knight which looks fantastic but that type of art style is a lot less time consuming than that level of pixel art they have in Chasm.
[Stephan] So Unworthy’s art style was decided on out of necessity in terms of being able to finish the game?
[Aleks] Yeah, it was balance and necessity. I looked at it and I said, “I want to finish a game in 2 years. I don’t have 10 years of life to just put on hold and make a game.” Also with my limited game knowledge like when I started I wasn’t as good at designing or programming as I am now. So when you’re going into it you don’t want to suddenly aim for everything grand off the bat you want to work with something that is still in your realm of workability. You know what I mean? Start working with play-doh don’t get an anvil and a piece of steel and a hammer and go away at it.
[Stephan] (laughs) Makes sense.
[Aleks] So I started there. Now if I was making another game, like after Unworthy is done, I wouldn’t do pixel art anymore. I think the next step up would be to do colour, like something like Chasm. I have a hard time believing something like that is financially worth it, just the amount of time it takes. I don’t want to sound like a money guy, but if the medium dictates how profitable your game is you should probably pick a different medium. It doesn’t mean you should stop making games it just means you have to be smart about how you make them if you want to continue making them.
[Stephan] Would you say you were more proficient with the programming than the art going into Unworthy?
[Aleks] No, I would say I was more proficient with the art than the programming. I would say that now it is on par within the project. It’s commentary that some other people have said where once you start doing it at a certain point you’re not really expanding your knowledge of programming or anything because you’ve built the systems the game is kind of done, it’s just about content. So you’re not really growing as a developer, you grow as a designer perhaps thinking about what to add, what to adjust. But my programming knowledge for a while has not really been expanding, it’s just been getting better at doing the same thing a thousand times.
Next game I’m sure it will be like you start again. And that being said, even though that other game Gunlock was a smaller game being made in three weeks it’s something that if I had started back when I started Unworthy probably would not have taken me three weeks it probably would’ve taken me a lot longer. With experience, you get quicker, more proficient with things.
[Stephan] Practice makes perfect.
[Aleks] (laughs) It makes something.
[Stephan] What exactly is the story in Unworthy? In the gif where the player is killed and it looks like the Grim Reaper steals his soul and “UNWORTHY” flashes it up it makes it seem like, is the player is the “Unworthy”?
[Aleks] Uhh… (long pause) I don’t want to comment on that.
[Stephan] Oh okay (laughs).
[Aleks] I would prefer players to figure it out and interpret it themselves.
[Stephan] What’s the most you can say about the setting and the premise? Are we in Medieval times? Are we in modern times?
Aleks: It’s safe to say we’re in Medieval times, in an all but dying world with a lot of strange stuff going on. (laughs) I don’t know how else to put it I don’t want to spoil too much about what’s going on with the story. It’s one of those things where in the beginning not a lot makes sense, you’re not even sure what you’re doing you’re just kind of playing a game because you’re playing a game. That’s your job, go forward. Eventually, you find out why started it in the first place. (laughs)
[Stephan] I like that. I like that a lot.
[Aleks] There’s none of this “I showed up at the castle in Castlevania to slay Dracula.” Players are going to play the game and they’re going to go forward and kill stuff, and maybe at the end, you can think about why you did it.
[Stephan] Some late-game contemplation and reflection.
[Stephan] So what’s your plan for release? PC?
[Aleks] Presently I’m just planning on doing PC, Mac and Linux. Hopefully after that consoles.
It’s something I was thinking about doing on my own earlier, but after doing the research on it I don’t think porting is something I’m presently interested in or want to even think about because it is a long time commitment. It also depends on the success of Unworthy on launch and if it warrants a console port. I’m hoping it will do well, but at the same time, I’m sure anybody will tell you in this industry it doesn’t seem like you ever know.
[Stephan] Are you doing development on Unworthy full time, or do you have a job and you’re doing this on the side?
[Aleks] Nope, I’ve been doing it full time for two and a half years. It’s an important thing to talk about because I don’t feel like a lot of developers talk about how they manage to do what they do.
I think finances and things like that are for some reason always hidden. But I was able to save when I was doing engineering and it pays reasonably well, I wasn’t paying for my rent at the time while I was working which is straight out of school. So I managed to save up a lot from there. Enough to live modestly for the next two and a half years.
But even without that, I think, after all this time there’s still financial support I can rely on from parents to push it all the way through. I don’t have that guillotine hanging over my neck thinking about whether or not I have $20 left in my bank account.
I have my own financial support to begin with and if things get bad I have social support that is willing to put out some financial support. I think it’s a pretty privileged situation compared to what most game developers are going through.
[Stephan] Is there anything else you wanted people to know about you, your work or anything about game design you feel isn’t talked about enough?
[Aleks] I think everything but the financials is talked about more than enough you can find everything on the internet.
Unworthy is a game being developed solely by me except for the audio.
[Stephan] Who’s doing the audio?
[Aleks] The audio is being done by one person in Serbia. He found me online and was interested and got in on it. We have a revenue share agreement. The music is being done by the same guy who did the music for Gunlock a guy named Brian Havey (zminusone) who also found me online and also got in on a revenue share agreement.
I know a lot of people are against revenue share, but I feel in my experience when you get people in on revenue share people tend to produce things that are better than if you’re just paying for things, usually that way they just end up not being invested in the project it’s just a gig for them. Whether they do a good job they won’t care as much as when they have a stake in the project.
[Stephan] The more successful the game the better their payout is.
[Aleks] Right, but you also as the sole developer get to mitigate risk from yourself because if the game doesn’t do well then you all, you know…
[Stephan] Do you have a release date yet?
[Aleks] I’m hoping to finish it up in the next month and a half to two months. And then after that just figuring out how to integrate on Steam. Then I just have to do my legwork, create a proper release trailer, things like that.
You don’t want to spend two years and then just push a button on Steam and hope it goes well.
[Stephan] Thank you so much for Aleks for the interview and good luck with development!
[Aleks] Alright man, thank you!
Aleks said he would be open to another discussion after the release of Unworthy talking about the game’s development, what he learned, a sort of post-mortem. So stay tuned for that.
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Alek’s work and keeping up with Unworthy‘s development you should follow him on Twitter @MrAmlice. You can wishlist Unworthy right now on Steam! If you liked this interview you can catch me on Twitter @StephanReilly.
If you want to read some of my other interviews check out my interview with IGF award winner Mattias “D!TTØ” Dittrich, my interview with RunGunJumpGun‘s music, sound and story designer Jordan Bloemen and my interview with totally rad Swedish dev Dead Toast.