Following the release of their first game – RUYA (which you can read about here) – on 2nd November, I had the opportunity to speak with Bradley Smith of Miracle Tea Studios about RUYA’s influences, life running a business and what the future holds for Miracle Tea Studios now RUYA is out in the wild.
How did you come up with the idea of Ruya? What inspirations shaped its direction?
Tom needed a games artist and originally approached me with a prototype (shown below) that I skinned and tweaked some of the design of. So it’s worth noting the inspiration and reason for creating Ruya will vary from each team member. Though collectively there’s a non-verbal understanding where we see Ruya as a kind of love letter game to each of the important women in our lives. As a team, we wouldn’t necessarily play this genre of game at all so in many ways, we’ve made it for our sisters, partners, mothers, and grandmothers in the hope to bring more women into the game industry. Though, we hope Ruya is relatable to a special kind of person no matter who they are and resonates deeply with them at a certain time in their life. The emotional response is the most important thing to us.
Our gameplay mechanic inspirations pull from games like Tetris, Connect Four and Two Dots. Our theme / tone and mood inspirations have pulled influence from games like The Binding of Isaac, Passage (Jason Rohrer), Pathways (Terry Cavanagh), and Monument Valley. Our design philosophy pulls inspirations from the teachings of Ram Dass, Alan Watts and Terence McKenna. I’ve been streaming development for the last year and listen to Ram Dass lectures in order to get me ‘in the zone’. I very much identify and aspire to developers like Jason Rohrer, Edmund McMillen and Jeff Minter, the interviews with them have taught me a lot. I’m also a huge fan of The Big Lez show and some of the philosophy behind it.
Before Ruya me and my game jam buddy Joe Kinglake competed in the Indie Speed Run 3.0 competition together. Our entry was called ‘Mantra’ and it was a 3D Art finalist, even though it was all 2D art. I just animated the camera to make it feel 3D. You’ll notice pretty heavy similarities to that prototype and Ruya. Originally a lot of the influences for this prototype came from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the indie game Year Walk.
When I’m not content, I’m super creative. Which is bittersweet. A lot of the visuals kind of spewed out of me after the loss of my Nan and observing how my mother handled the grief. The dreams that you unlock in Ruya are pulled from real experiences from her. Or how my girlfriend would brush her hair. Or how my sister would cuddle our dog. The intro sequence uses a lot of metaphor for my Nan’s life. I’m also a little bit of a solipsist. I believe that all that exists an individual’s consciousness and we’re just imagining our experiences for the heck of it. I once had a dream where I was reborn as a woman in the snow. All I remember was I had a lot of children that I was caring for and the focal point of that existence was to learn to survive the harsh weather. A part of me now thinks that when you die you’re reborn again, but as someone completely opposite to who you are now. There’s a lot going on in my head and I try to channel that into my games in order to learn about myself and the world I find myself experiencing.
Ruya in Arabic means dream which sort of embodies the diegesis for the game. It’s also a common name for girls. I lucid dream pretty heavily quite often. I think dreaming is sort of an obsession of mine. Music is also one of the biggest tools for generating ideas. I listen to a song and try to recreate the feelings that it elicits in me.
One thing that’s been interesting is that Ruya is a lesbian and adopts a family. Which is a deliberate attempt to normalise same-sex love and adoption. The idea was to imagine someone who’s growing up battling with this issue, perhaps in a culture or home where this is less accepted and the consequences may be extreme. It’s for a young person who’s having these feelings so they can find comfort in the story. We tried to tie it into the game in a way that was subtle and not too ‘in your face’. This way it sinks into people’s subconscious to hopefully see it as less of an issue. A kind of passive mind-altering form of activism I guess. The sooner it’s normalised, the sooner people will grow. We released a soft-launched an android version of the game and the country with the most popularity was Russia. Which was interesting considering their governments take on homosexuality.
My girlfriend Fennell also has been a huge help throughout development. If she likes a design I’ve made then it goes in the game, even if I hate it. Because the games not aimed at me. I use her as a kind of filtering system/quality control to decide what designs are good and bad. She’s basically the target audience. Fennell has helped me a lot when we’ve exhibited the game and she even handmade us this custom plushie for of Ruya that chills with a crow from Monument Valley on my desk.
Miracle Tea Studios started nearly a year and a half ago, how has running a small studio been for you and your team?
I’m the only one that’s been full time on Ruya for the most part. Though I still had to pick up the odd contract and sell art on the side to keep myself afloat. I feel very lucky that the guys trusted in me to go full time on development and push it out there to people. They’re sweethearts. The rest of the guys have had to juggle full-time jobs for the entire development of the game. Tom works at a tech company, Enrico works in a hotel and Gav works at a law company. It can be draining on their motivation sometimes after a 9 – 5 day. I try to rekindle their drive by adding cool new things into the game often so they get excited again.
It’s for sure been tough. A lot of up and downs and many feelings of wanting to quit and just go live in the woods. Though I think a lot of developers feel like that sometimes. Our team has lost partners, jobs and a lot of strains on friendships and family along the way. We’re pretty young and naive. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. The key is to just keep pushing in spite of all that.
Tom and I turned down studio work for a big company in order to make this game. Most of our peers have gone off to work on big budget games with a stable income. I’ve had to sell a lot of my stuff just to be independent. Which has been kind of cathartic but when it came down to selling my childhood games that’s was a bit of an emotional hit. Our social lives have taken a huge hit which feels wrong because everyone tells you that your twenties are the golden years. We all work remotely so it can be isolating sometimes and difficult to keep clear communication going. Sometimes things get lost in translation with words. Language is limiting. When you spend days on end living your life through a screen rather than actually living it, that can be tough as well. There were times where I didn’t go outside or speak to people for days on end.
Do you have any tips for game developers in a similar position to you two years ago who are considering taking the leap and forming a studio?
Don’t make games for money, just do it for the love. No one ever has written on their gravestone “he had a fancy car, a huge house, and the latest phone and TV”. People are remembered for the way they hold their heads and the way they hold their hearts. Consider the ethical ramifications and the impact you’re potentially having on the global consciousness. When you’re forming a studio, and thinking about the type of game you want to make, strive to put out good vibes.
Embrace failing a lot, little and often. When you let go of your ego and embrace being bad at something you find yourself improving a lot. Compete in as many game jams as possible. In the 5 years I’ve been making games I’ve competed in over 20 game jams both online and at real-world events. If you’re at uni then that’s the perfect time to do jams. My dissertation at the University of Suffolk was to compete in as many jams as possible within the year and write postmortems on the games I made.
Ruya would be half the game it is if it wasn’t for game jams. They teach you to scope small and get to the essence of your game quick. If you move around a lot from team to team you get a good sense of who you work well with too. Whatever idea you have for a game, cut it in half and then half again and then half of that is probably what you’ll end up making.
In my opinion game developers need to be more fearless. They worry too much about upsetting people. I think if you’re serious about moving games forward and evolving we need to push boundaries and break conventions. That’s one of the most important things about being independent. I’m slowly learning to not look at other games for inspiration and try and pull more from non-gaming spaces. It’s cool to try and make the weirdest thing you can think of. I make games for the same reason I play games and that’s escapism. It’s a coping mechanism and an outlet for me to get out anything that I may be dealing with at the time. It’s for sure a form a self-therapy. I tend to pour my heart and soul into my work and draw from personal struggles and issues.
One of the most important things is to not take it too seriously and detach yourself. I try to treat each game like how those Buddhist monks paint patterns in the sand and then they just let the ocean wash it away. They make something beautiful and they just let it go. I think there’s something to that.
Similarly, what challenges have you encountered during your journey to develop Ruya?
The most challenging thing for me personally was retaining artistic integrity and creative control. We had some shady offers, and near misses from companies. When I graduated I was screwed around with contracts a little. That feeling of being demoralised has made me a super cautious and meticulous individual when it comes to a business deal. I’ve learned that most people have an agenda and are out to push it. The truth is, companies are banking on hungry enthusiastic young people who want to work in the ‘industry’, but really, they’re just getting cheap labour. They know most graduates are in a vulnerable position so they can take them for a ride. They know most people will say yes. I think it’s important for people to know that.
We had a lot of pressure from people to skew the design of the game into something that I felt was unethical and manipulative. So many people would tell us how we should be making our games and it can be a little overwhelming. In the end, we’re just going to try and stay true to ourselves and go with what we think is right.
What does the future hold for Miracle Tea Studios once Ruya is out?
We’ll do some fine tuning to Ruya for iOS updates and prepare the Android/PC release if people dig it.
Got a game jam in London lined up in December called ‘Games For The Many’ if we can find a place to crash. I like the idea of attempting to explore solving a social problem like homelessness through game design. Though the team is definitely going rest up. I’ve got a bit of a gut and poor posture going. So I’m going to spend some time skateboarding and eating well to get my health back in check. Time off is so important. I need to catch up with old friends too. Making games and working hard is cool but at the end of the day friends and family are the most important thing during our short time on this floating rock together. One of the most common regrets people have on their death bed is that they wished they hadn’t worked so hard and spent more time with the people that were important to them.
Regardless of what people say about the game or how much money it makes, we already see Ruya as a success. Too many people define success and a person’s worth by the contents of their wallet. If you’re happy, you’re successful. I wish more developers considered that. Ruya will probably only make £10, and that’s fine. I’m content with the idea of working a simple little job as a florist or something and just self-funding independent games on the side for the rest of my life. So long as your basic needs are met, that’s all the matters. My painter friend Jasper Zeeuw once said to me, “Don’t strive to be a man with everything. Strive to be a man content with nothing. That way you’ll never be disappointed in life.” I think about that often.
What happens next really depends on how people respond to the game, I guess. We’re in our early twenties, so it’s unlikely we’ll obtain financial independence. Maybe in another ten years, perhaps. If we’re able to sustain ourselves we’ll keep making games together, but as it stands I’m already looking for work. I’ve poured everything I have financially into the game for a while now, which is probably a dumb thing to do because most games tend to flop. You only hear about the successful games, really.
RUYA is out now for iOS on the App Store for £0.99
Bradley and the Miracle Tea Studio team will be at the Rapture Gaming Festival and Game Anglia in Ipswich during November, which is where most of their team went to university.