Interview: James Watton, creator of Dawn of The Ronin

January 27, 2014 | By | Add a Comment

Over the weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing James Watton, creator of the much anticipate Steam game, Dawn of the Ronin.  You can read the Indielicious article on James’s game here.

The Interview ..

Indielicous:  James, could you introduce yourselves, and tell us a little about your background and experience?

James Watton: I started programming in C# and XNA in 2010, since then I’ve released 2 games on the Xbox Indie Games channel, and also joined a company as a programmer that I work for full-time who specializes in writing software for TV broadcasters.

Before I started programming in 2010, I’d had very little experience writing games. I started off writing Basic on the C64 as a child, making a ball bounce around the screen was my first triumph. I did a programming course in college which mostly covered VB, and a little Java afterwards, but my employment history was all around retail and banking. XNA helped me break into the industry that I always wanted to be in.

IL: How did you get into making indie games?

JW: I hadn’t done any programming for years when I stumbled across XNA. The thought of being able to create a game and play it on the Xbox was too much to resist, and having all the tools available for free made it a no-brainer! I downloaded the tools, installed VS Express and got to work reading online tutorials and C# books until I completed my first project – Puzzle Lights.

Dawn of The Ronin ..

Dawn of The Ronin

Dawn of The Ronin

IL: Please briefly describe what Dawn of The Ronin is.

JW: Dawn of the Ronin is a side-scrolling action game with tasteful gore and dismemberment, set in 16th Century feudal Japan. You play the part of a Ronin warrior, a samurai without a master, who is caught up in the midst of one of the biggest military campaigns in Japanese history. Based on historic events infused with a healthy dose of Japanese folklore, you are sent across the lands to recruit legendary samurai warriors to aid in the defense of Osaka, the last place of resistance against a warlord dominating the Japanese islands.

IL: Besides yourself, is there anyone else involved with making the game?

JW: I have an artist on board who is responsible for many of the games characters and level sprites, as well as the cover box and other artworks. I also have a talented friend who is currently composing more musical pieces for the game.

IL: Where did the idea for DoTR originate?  What was your inspiration?

JW: I am quite passionate about Japan’s culture and history, I love watching many of the Asian martial arts movies such as Seven Swords, 13 assassins, anime like Shigurui and the american cartoon Samurai Jack. After reading James Silva’s Building XNA 2.0 Games, having a side-scrolling samurai game seemed like a great idea, and there weren’t many that I was aware of, so I decided to go with that and see how it came out.

IL: The backdrop for the DoTR story is fascinating. Why did you choose feudal Japan in the 16th century?  Why this particular story?  Why Tokugawa Ieyasu?

JW: 16th century Japan was an easy choice. It’s a popular time with games like Dynasty Warriors, it has some fascinating events and battles and was an important point in Japan’s history.

I wanted the game to be as historically accurate as possible, but that doesn’t always make for a very fun game. While I was researching, I realized that the siege of Osaka would make the perfect backdrop for the game. I was quite fond of the way Dragon Age: Origins had the camp as a base of operations in between missions, so something similar where Osaka was the base of operations would work great. Just reading the Wikipedia entry for it reads like it should be a videogame.

If the player was going to be based in Osaka, then Tokugawa Ieyasu would have to be the villain. I am a great fan of the Witcher novels and videogames with the ambiguity between good and evil, so even though Tokugawa may be the villain, his motives may be for good. This gives me the opportunity to put in a few choices for the player and the ability to influence or change history.

IL: Why did you make the hero in the game anonymous and nameless?

JW: With the visual style of the game there is a lot of room for the player to interpret things how they wish. For example, one of the scenes is a mountain top monastery, but all you see are the shapes, so its up to the player to fill in the details and textures of the buildings and trees for themselves. Having an anonymous hero helps the player fill in the details about the character he is controlling in the same way. Likewise, the hero never speaks for himself/herself either.

IL: The visual style of the game is very striking.  Why did you go for shadows and silhouettes?  Was it a play on Japanese shadow puppets, or because of the anonymous and nameless aspect of the hero?

JW: Before I started on Dawn of the Ronin I had made a couple of prototypes for similar side-scrolling games that used detailed sprites. The amount of work that it took was quite significant for someone who is a terrible artist, but I was determined to make a good looking game that was capable of actually being finished.

Films like the Last Samurai and Kill Bill used silhouettes in a couple of places, and cartoons like Samurai Jack make great use of shadows and light, while Afro Samurai had some great visual scenes too. It put the idea into my head of using silhouettes – the outline of a samurai is quite distinct, and after creating a concept image, it got quite a good response, so I created the basics of the game and decided to go with it.

IL: What tools did you use to develop DoTR?

JW: I used XNA and C# for all aspects of the game. I’ve got a custom level editor, character editor, and Photoshop for the images/art stuff.

IL: What is your core development philosophy?

JW: I guess my philosophy is to just knuckle down and do it. It’s very easy to procrastinate and put-off difficult bits for later. One thing I’ve learnt from my full-time job is that the difficult bits are NEVER that bad once you get started on them, so now I just try get stuck in without over-thinking it too much.

IL: DoTR was very popular on Steam Greenlight.  Do you have any tips you can share on running a successful Greenlight campaign?

JW: I had a lot of help from the fact that the Steam servers were attacked causing new entries on Greenlight not to show up. This gave me an extra few days on the front page. Even so, the game had a 70% rating of yes to no votes when it was accepted. Maximizing exposure is the most important part of Greenlight, so getting the word out on Twitter, posting announcements, calling in favours, these are things that everyone should be doing.

Also, make the game stand out. Good box art goes a long way to catching peoples attention, but you need a great game to get people to vote ‘Yes’ and not just skip over it or click no.

IL: Developing and marketing are two full time jobs.  How do you find a balance between them?  How do you make sure you remain productive?

JW: I really enjoy working on Dawn of the Ronin and get quite a bit of feedback from various sources, so it’s a great motivator to keep working on it. My full-time job helps keep my mind off the game during the day, and it’s varied enough that I don’t get burnt out on programming, so coming home and getting a few hours done doesn’t feel like a chore.

The marketing side of things I sure don’t do enough of, but my artist helps out there by posting on forums, and when I find some spare time I try to slot in a blog post on my lunch breaks from work.

General Questions ..

IL: What is your all time favourite game?

JW: Ah I hate this question.. right now I’d have to say Tales of Vesperia, closely followed by Witcher 2.

IL: What is you favourite game of 2013?

JW: Out of the AAA games, Rocksmith 2014 is one of the few released this years I’ve actually played and enjoyed. Indie games, The Novelist is probably my favourite of the year.

IL: Who are your heroes, and why?  (Doesn’t have to be in games)

JW: Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian – if I could go for as long as they do without food, water or the bathroom, I’d be unstoppable!

IL: What do you want to be doing in 5 years time?

JW: Sleeping in a hammock on a sunny beach somewhere tropical, but most likely I’ll be somewhere in rainy England working on another game in my spare time! It’s an exciting time at my workplace, so I’m as excited to see how it plays out there as I am in making sequels for Dawn of the Ronin!

Wrapping up ..

IL: What about your thoughts on the current state of Indie Gaming?  And the future?

JW: Well, I’ve purchased maybe two or three AAA games this year, but considerably more indie games. If that trend is true for the majority of people, then it’s a great time to be an indie dev! There’s the Occulus Rift that I’m very excited about, and the ID@Xbox program that look very promising, Project Spark for those looking for an alternate to RPG Maker type of programs, and mobile devices getting more powerful each day. It’s going to be exciting to see what the next innovations will be.

IL: What are your thoughts on being an indie developer today?

JW: It’s an interesting time for sure. With Valve wanting to make Steam an open-platform somewhat similar to the Appstore, the ID @ Xbox program from Microsoft, and Unity and Monogame helping with cross-platform compatibility, it’s getting easier for devs to get their games out in front of big audiences, at the cost of decreased exposure. But, if you’re looking for a hobby, it’s incredibly rewarding having other people playing your game and enjoying it!

IL: Care to share any pearls of wisdom for other devs and artists trying to make games?

JW: I highly recommend reading James Silva’s book – Building XNA 2.0 Games. It may be outdated now, but there is very little in that book that isn’t still applicable. It’s by far the best starting point for making games. Aside from that, just getting on with the things that you’ve put off can really help get things done. It’s easier said than done, so having a beer or vodka and coke can help ease the pain!

IL: What’s next for you?

JW: At the moment I’ll be busy working on getting Dawn of the Ronin ready for the Steam release. After that, I have about 20 prototype games I’ve worked on that I’d love to finish, choosing one will be difficult!


So there you have it.  A very interesting interview with James.  Dawn of The Ronin is a great looking game, and I’m looking forward to playing and reviewing it later this year.  Go and check out the game on Steam here.

Category: Features, Interviews

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