Interview with Mango Protocol, Developers of MechaNika, Winner of The Best Mobile Video Game at 3HM 2015
Mango Protocol is an indie game studio with their first project just hitting the app stores and harvesting some of the highest praise possible. A 4.9 rating on Google Play is worth noting, but a few nominations and an award hot right out the oven is something that backs that love of the audience. We played and reviewed MechaNika, and got immediately interested in the masterminds behind it. So, we digitally sat for a lengthy, but very substantial and interesting interview with Mariona Valls Porta and Javier Galvez Guerrero.
Tell our readers what is Mango Protocol – who are the people behind it, how you've joined forces and how old is MP?
Javi: Mango Protocol is a video game studio based in Barcelona, Spain, and created in the last months of 2013 when Mariona, a graduate in fine arts, fashion designer and candy maker, and me, a graduate in telecom engineering and video game development, decided to let the world know about our own stories through games.
Mariona takes care of all the visual aspects of game creation and I’m in charge of the design and programming tasks. Moreover, during the development of our first game, MechaNika, Guillem Vilamala Serrano contributed to the game with his music composed specifically for the game, and Adam Giles Levy translated the game into English.
What are your respective backgrounds in art and coding?
Mariona: I spent more than 5 years making candy after I finished my degree. I always tried to keep some time (and space) to make my own projects during this time working for others, so this is how it started, combining my day job with making awesome art for our own video game.
J: I’ve been working as a programmer in the R&D and software engineering business during 7 years before leaving my job in order to start this project with Mariona, who happens to be my girlfriend.
How many games or apps have you released as MP?
M: We have just released MechaNika, it’s our first game. We also made two games in the latest Global Game Jams with a very close friend and game dev too, Jordi, to have some fun for a weekend. In 2014 we made Causeffect and in 2015 Magnet Arena, but they ended just being prototypes.
For those who haven't played the game, yet, how would you describe it?
J: MechaNika is an adventure game that introduces you to Nika, a little smart girl that wants to remove from the Psychotic world all things that she doesn’t like, including people who don’t care about her and anything she considers an injustice or a waste of time. To achieve that Nika has to complete project MechaNika and build the definitive weapon to destroy it all.
The game relies on puzzle solving through dialogues and item combinations, like in classic point and click adventure games. Moreover, the superficially hilarious conversations and situations also try to depict our vision of some aspects of the real world, which is sadly not that different from the Psychotic one.
We played and reviewed MN – it is like that Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You see the box and think it is going to be a fun game, but then you start playing and suddenly realize there might be more to it than just a game for adults. By the time you are head over heels into the gameplay you suddenly realize this game is a deep philosophical tale. How did you come up with this idea?
M: During the last two years of my fine arts degree I started mixing cuteness and violence in some of my projects, specially the Psychotic Girls. When Javi finished a master's degree in video game design, he thought it might be interesting to “translate” those projects into a video game world. And this is how we started to think about telling some stories for a mature audience but with simple and clean visuals. As you said, people may approach MechaNika because it looks adorable, but then they’ll be hooked on the game because of the story.
We all understand the games as far and as well as we can, but what is the message behind MN? Or, is there a message as such?
J: I’d not say there is a message as such but a portrait of some aspects of our reality where we, Mariona and myself, play the artist's role. In other words, it’s just our opinion and we try to show it through the stories of the different characters in the game.
However, you may say “Blah, blah, blah. OK, call it a message or an opinion, but what is it?”. Alright, I think I could sum it up like this: “Your speech doesn’t matter. Whatever you do, you are doing it for yourself after all.” While many characters in the game just behave selfishly, Agatha (religion) and Nika (terrorism), with their own double standard, are the two that best represent this idea.
This may be the main theme of the game, but we also tackle others like materialism, family communication, resentment, abortion trauma, veganism, children education, trash TV, and many others, although in a more subtle way.
I haven't gotten to the game's end, yet. How many endings are there?
J: There is just one end, but you can reach it differently depending on how you solved the puzzles to get every component of project MechaNika.
Who would you recommend the game to? What is MN's target audience? Age limit?
M: I try to recommend the game to every adult I meet or know :D. We always think about people between 20s to early 40s, you’re an adult more or less and a person with the ability to reflect. There is no limit to think about some subjects, but maybe you don’t find it funny in the way we exposed them in the game.
Every scene in MechaNika feels like a direct, non-masked sarcasm. Is it me, or are you being sarcastic? If yes, what are you being sarcastic about?
J: We thought we masked all of them! xD Yes, as I said before we tried to expose many themes in MechaNika and let people choose if it was worth for them to spend some time thinking about it. Sarcasm is a nice literary device.
How do you feel about MechaNika's characters – Nika, her family, friends, people she meets? Is there anyone you dislike particularly?
M: I think they really fit the world we built to tell the things the way we do, and in some way they are a part of me. Maybe the part I tend to dislike, so I’m the selfish, the double standard, the despicable ones, but in my exercise to embrace and love myself I really like them all.
There’s something funny about this, some people think Nika is me, including my own father. At the beginning I made an effort to explain that she’s not me (although I appear in the game as myself actually), but recently I realized that Nika also shows a part of me. When I was younger I used to feel misunderstood by my family and friends, and I truly believed that someday I’d be able to change the world, my world at least. In some way every Psychotic girl I created is a part of me, an extremely caricatured part of me.
J: I think I have a love-hate relationship with almost every character, because I agree with them to some extent; then I completely disagree. And that’s the charming reality of the omnipresent contradiction and double standard that pours from MechaNika xD.
As far as I understand, you put yourselves in the game – the two gods who created the psychotic world (a wonderful artistic trick only the few top-notch film makers dare use). Are you expressing your own attitudes through the two gods Nika meets at the cafe? Do they meet again?
J: Our presence in the game has three different purposes. First, we wanted to be closer to Nika (the player) and help her in her quest in case she needed some guidance. Second, we tried to break the fourth wall and fill the gap between the real world and the Psychotic one. And third, we were a bit egocentric and thought that appearing in our own video game would be really cool. If Stan Lee and Tarantino can do it, why not us? In the end, I think it shows that you are really proud of your work, so proud that you don’t hesitate to stick your head and say “Hey! I’ve done this! And I hope you like it too!”.
M: This is our first game and we thought about making a cameo, just for fun. It was later during the development when we got the idea of making our presence something useful for the players, even if they don’t know us.
How would you estimate the replayability of MechaNika? How do a player's decisions affect the outcome? Can you have a somewhat different replay the next time you play?
J: Some puzzles can be solved in different ways. For example, you may prefer to use your money to buy an item, or you may take a look at your inventory and realize that this with that can be used to get what you want without spending any money. Or maybe you can’t choose because you didn’t collect enough money so you must find a different way. You’ll get to the same result, but you’ll experience different puzzles.
However, we encourage people to replay the game because there are lots of new dialogues and scenes that will appear as you progress in the game but you may not notice them because you are in the rush of assembling MechaNika to destroy the world. We also designed 30 achievements, and having all of them in a single run is really difficult. If you have a completionist profile you have no choice but replay the game and discover some of the details we put in the game.
How do you estimate the difficulty of some of the challenges and puzzles in the game – can an average users armed with Google search solve them?
J: Our beta testers told us that the game was slightly easier than expected, but we didn’t want to make a difficult game. Actually, there are some easy puzzles and some difficult ones, depending on your profile and your background. However, we preferred players to enjoy the dialogues and scenes they found during their quest and, when facing a puzzle, offer them 2 ways to solve them. How difficult they are depends on which path they get. The first is the obvious one: you take a look at your inventory and the environment in order to guess how to solve it. Then, if after some time thinking you don’t get it, then you can get a clue by taking a sip of your cognac and cocoa concoction. After the drunkenness has passed Nika will see things clearer and she’ll give you a clue. This is the second way to solve puzzles. When we released the game, some people told us that they were using the hip flask a lot so I guess the game is not that easy for everyone.
Are there any hidden/surprise elements in the game?
J: There are some unexpected story twists, some of which may feel really weird, but really fit the story (at least we think they do!). The game is full of references to music, movies, anime, and games we love, not only art assets, but also puzzles. Also we tried to fill the Psychotic world with lots of details that may go unnoticed the first time you meet a character or discover a new stage. We can only encourage you to wander and take a look around Nika’s world and see how it changes as the story evolves with your actions.
How long did it take you to make the game?
M: We got the original idea back in December of 2012 and then we started working on it in our spare time. A year later I left my job to work on MechaNika with full commitment, and in January 2015, when the game was almost ready, Javi left his job as well. Then we prepared the release, created Mango Protocol officially and published the game. So, it’s hard to know how long it took, but I guess… 1 year and a half?
Are you planning to port MechaNika to other platforms (Windows Phone, consoles, or PC)?
M: Yes! If everything goes as expected we’ll start a Steam Greenlight campaign and if we get greenlit, then MechaNika will be published in PC and Mac.
What was the most important challenge in the production process?
M: Being loyal to ourselves and at the same time make something interesting to other people. It’s cool to make whatever you want to do but it’s important to remember this is our job, we live from selling games (we’re trying at least), and if nobody cares about what we offer… no business!
What engine have you chosen and why?
J: After some research we decided to go with libGDX. It’s not really an engine but a cool multiplatform game development framework for those freaks like me who like Java and want to get their games in many platforms while programming just once. I built an engine using this framework because I wanted to face some of the challenges related to programming the different system modules that were required to create an adventure game like MechaNika, including dialog trees, multiple solution puzzles and world navigation management.
Also, when we started MechaNika, I wasn’t really sure about Unity3D and its possibilities regarding 2D in general and adventure games in particular (time proved we could have used it and any possible issue would have been solved easily). Other specific tools like AGS, Wintermute and Visionaire seemed somehow limited and I was afraid that we might have some problems in the future when trying to implement some of the features we had in mind.
To sum up, we chose libGDX because I like programming and I’m a coward.
How are you tackling your marketing challenges?
J: We try to share some cool illustrations regularly in Twitter and Facebook. Obviously, we also keep contacting specialized websites and blogs to see if they’d like to try our game and give us a chance to appear in their sites, while trying to keep them up to date with any related news. Oh, and we constantly push our friends so they help us spreading the word about MechaNika. They are probably starting to hate us.
We also try to answer all the emails we receive from people that write us to tell that they had a really great time playing our game. And although this could be considered a marketing task, we really love to answer people that take their time to drop us a line to say ‘Thank you’, ‘Nika rules’, or ‘Keep the good work’. Knowing that some people like what we have done is definitely one of the best feelings we’ve ever had.
Overall, we are not marketing professionals, but we try to save some of our time to let the world know about us and thank the support we receive.
Have you tried crowd-funding yet? Where do you seek your funding? Do you work on side gigs or are you fully involved in Mango Protocol?
M: We are surviving thanks to our savings. As I used to say, our world is nothing but Mango Protocol, so we put all our money and wishes in making this real.
J: We may consider a crowd-funding campaign in the future for one ambitious idea we have in mind, also related with the Psychotic world, but first we need to see what happens with MechaNika and our next game.
How do the players/developer community receive the game? Are you happy with the feedback?
M: Quite good so far! We have very good reviews on the Google Play Store and they’re popping up on the App Store. Players are generally happy with the experience and nobody sent us a horse head, so yes, this is great and better than expected.
What is the geography of MN's downloads – do you see a prevalence of some particular country?
J: Most of the downloads come from Spain, where adventure games have reborn, among both gamers and developers. Other countries where the game seems to be spreading are the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Mexico.
Any nominations/awards you would like to boast of?
J: Yes! MechaNika recently won the Best Mobile Game prize in the Three Headed Monkey Awards 2015 event, a video game contest aimed to give visibility to student projects and new independent studios like us. Besides that, currently we are candidates in the Indie Burger Developer Awards 2015 and the 8th Spanish Video Games Industry Awards.
We don’t know if we win any other prize, but we really love joining these events because it allows us to meet new people that are extremely passionate and have put a lot of effort in their games, just like us. And if we win it makes it even better, of course!
What is the name for MechaNika's style in art?
M: LOL. Psychotic? I take a lot of references from different art movements and times.
For example, I think it’s obvious that MechaNika’s art style is deeply influenced by 19th century naïve art and the kawaii Japanese movement.
Any tips and tricks or walkthroughs you would like to share with the players of MechaNika?
J: Don’t click compulsively everywhere in the screen just to see if any interaction icon pops up. Instead, take a look around and talk to everyone. Most of the people in the Psychotic world can help you in your quest. And if you don’t see things clear enough… you can always take a sip of your hip flask with cognac with cocoa!
Is there a next psychotic game in the works/plans at MP? Will it be MechaNika sequel or a totally new game?
M: We have a lot of ideas for new stories in this Psychotic world we have created, including prequels and sequels, that we’ll try to bring to life as soon as possible. Currently we’re working on one of these stories starring one of the most controversial characters from Nika’s adventure ;).
Any piece of advice or encouragement to fellow indie developers?
J: If you have the chance, do the game you want. Don’t think about metrics, key words or niches. Just think about what you’d like to tell the world through your game. It doesn’t need to be a deep message or anything like that. Imagine you like the idea of toilet paper rolls with ninja skills travelling it time. What? If you really like the idea then go for it and share it with the world. Sure you’ll find someone who likes your idea and even pay for experiencing it.
M: WTF Javi… Whatever. It’s very difficult to create something that you love, affordable to make and interesting to other people, so my advice is try to find a balance between these concepts. I know it’s not an easy task but a game must be fun or enjoyable at least, because if it lacks the capability to entertain, then it’s not a game. My advice is almost against Javi’s (:D).
J: Not at all! I really agree with you. I just said that you must do what you want, and if you make something with passion there is a high probability that you won’t be the only person on the planet who will enjoy the game. Oh! Another piece of advice is to increase the probability: show your game to your friends during the early stages of development! Don’t wait for beta testing, or you may end with the game of your dreams but you will be the only one who will enjoy it. Wait… that’s… I’m contradicting myself!
M: OK, I surrender.
I am curious about Causeffect – what platforms are you releasing for and is there an estimated release date? I am absolutely mesmerized by the gameplay trailer, and knowing your gift for creating stories of deep philosophical meaning, I want to play it asap.
J: Causeffect was a game prototype developed during the Global Game Jam 2014, where we joined forces with our friend Jordi Garcia from Katsudon Games. As you probably know, the GGJ is a worldwide event where people gather together and develop a game prototype during 48 hours following a theme given by the organization. In 2014 the theme was "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.". Really weird stuff, isn’t it? Well, in the end we came up with the idea of creating a game experience where the environment reacted to the player’s attitude when facing unknown events and entities. This attitude would define how this environment evolved, thus offering new and different experiences every time a player started the game. An example was the first input the game got from the player. When the game starts you are floating in outer space, waiting for a signal. If you click the down arrow or the S key you will fall and land on the ground and become a terrestrial being as you seem to need a ground reference, introducing a platform and puzzle game. On the contrary, if you click any other arrow or direction you’d start wandering through the space; an exploration adventure starts then. Later, when you face unknown living entities, if you approach them calmly they will join you and protect you from any danger you may find in the future, but if you approach them violently, these living entities will become aggressive as well and will attack you. Thus, the environment becomes a reflection of what you are.
We were really excited with the ideas we came up with, but we ended implementing just a small subset and the gameplay didn’t reach our expectations, so we were somehow disappointed with the final result. However, we faced the event just as a way to think about a new game idea during the weekend before going back to our studio, so we never planned to go further and work on it as a “real” project. Then I guess Causeffect will never become a finished experience. Or maybe it does… who knows… :O.
How do you guys relax – is there a life outside the game production and the digital realm for Mango Protocol?
M: I like to save a time to make some watercolor paintings, just for fun. Take a break with a friend and eat some cake during a chatty evening. Helping Javi when he plays adventure games is something I really enjoy. An extra pair of eyes is always useful! It’s important to keep some time out of your work, difficult stuff when you’re working at home with your pijama on, but really necessary.
J: I really love doing some ‘room escaping’ from time to time with friends. I listen to music, basically djent, progressive and death metal (sounds familiar?). Also, I’ve recently been rewatching some of my favorite animes, like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. And I try to play games I’m interested in as soon as possible. The latest games I’ve played are Dead Synchronicity, Transistor and Ori and the Blind Forest. I really enjoyed a lot the three of them, little gems that we all can learn something.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
J: A sincere thank you for your interest in our work and our thoughts. And if you play MechaNika let us know what you think!
M: We even accept bad opinions, if they’re not mean! I’m a sensitive girl xD
There must be something in the Spanish air, or is it Barcelona that makes Spanish indie studios so darn talented? If a few months back we knew about the Cubus Games, now we know of Mango Protocol, and the THM Awards website is full of interesting projects – you should check it out. These developers don't just populate the games realm with the generic art and ideas loaded with micro-transactions (AAA devs, I am looking at you!), but bring something totally new, unique and engrossing to the table. If you haven't played MechaNika, yet, we encourage you to experience this unusual, psychotic and ingenious game.
or read our game review.