» Interview: My Little Investigations

Several weeks ago, Equestrian Dreamers released the demo of their highly anticipated fan game, My Little Investigations. For those not familiar, MLI is an Ace Attorney (Phoenix Wright) style game, adapted to fit within the theme of Friendship is Magic. GabuEx and his team over at Equestrian Dreamers agreed to sit down with us to answer some questions about their project. We talk about the present and the future of MLI and what the community can expect from the game.

What was the magic moment that got this project in motion?

GabuEx: It all started way back in the week of July 16-23 of 2011.  I know the precise week for two reasons: first, July 16 was my birthday; and second, because it was my birthday, I had taken the week off work.  Prior to the commencement of this project, I was quite involved in the creation of pony videos (trailers and PMVs, mostly), and I had this picture in my head of a very long video that would be set to the track Dancing Mad, the last boss theme from the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack.  It was going to be an epic retelling of the first two episodes of season one that would go along with the music, and would contain a narrative told through the use of vectors and textual dialog.

That project never came to fruition, sadly (I still would like to do it someday), but the thought of vectors and a textual narrative got me thinking about Ace Attorney and the way in which it did something similar to that.  My brain more or less started churning after that and realized that there was a surprisingly good fit between My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Ace Attorney, in that both of them have as part of their primary appeal character-driven narratives that are carried by very strongly defined, differentiated, and enjoyable personalities.  For fun, I created a mock-up image of Twilight talking to Apple Bloom roughly in the style of Ace Attorney.  Once that image was done, I then got the idea to export each layer individually and stick everything into Visual Studio, and see if I could create a cute little interactive mock-up of a video game featuring this setup.

Now, this wasn’t the first time that I had dabbled in video game programming before—I had previously created a portion of the Mega Man Zero engine, for example, after finding a site that provided sprite sheets from that game—but in every case, those were always just fun little week-long personal projects where I have fun putting things together, but then get bored of it fairly quickly and it falls by the wayside.  I had every expectation at this time that this would be yet another instance of that.  However, since I figured I had nothing much to lose, I submitted what I had at that point to Equestria Daily under the (at the time, intended to be working) title My Little Investigations.  I wasn’t expecting much, but to my complete shock, it got put up on the front page, and both Sethisto and all of the commenters sounded genuinely excited.  So I kept going, each time expecting everyone to have forgotten or to have lost interest, and each time finding out that, no, indeed, they had not.  And, well, the rest is history.

This game isn’t just a solo project. Can you tell us about the other members of your team and their contributions?

GabuEx: Of course!  This project has grown far beyond my wildest moments of imagination when it was first getting started, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there is no way that it would have even been possible without every single one of the wonderful people with whom I’ve had the privilege to work over the months since that first week in July.

I would be heavily remiss not to begin by mentioning ZeusAssassin.  I first met Zeus in around August of that year — about a month or so after the first video went live — via YouTube comments.  He had some questions about my direction for the game, we started talking, and before I knew it we were starting to seriously exchange ideas back and forth.  I had some vague ideas for cases before I met him, but with him I could very effectively play “idea ping-pong,” where I’d send him a vague idea, and then he’d flesh it out and send it back, and then I’d add even more and toss it his way, and in that respect these vague case ideas grew into very viable stories.

I think that his position as case and game designer is one that’s been kind of misunderstood, and by that I mean that I’m not sure enough people really know precisely what he does on the project.  That’s my fault, and is something I’d like to rectify.  So, to begin with, let me state something very clearly and without reservation: My Little Investigations would not exist today without ZeusAssassin.  He and I built both the new gameplay in MLI and all of our cases from the ground up, together.  If it weren’t for him, all of my case ideas and gameplay mode ideas would still just be fleeting thoughts in my head.  Anyone who likes My Little Investigations should be aware of the fact that Zeus has played an absolutely pivotal part almost since day one.

Beyond that, Zeus also is an invaluable asset when it comes to organization around the team.  I won’t lie; he is much better organized than I am, and I can always count on him to provide a solid framework for operation during discussions or meetings, to be able to keep track of everything that needs doing or something that we need to retrieve later.  He’s also my go-to guy for just about everything on the team, as well.  If I need a second opinion; if I need someone to assist me with something; if I need someone to help me go through voice actor lines; if I need someone to provide help or editing with scriptwriting; or if I need someone for just about anything else under the sun, I know that I can count on Zeus to be there, guaranteed.  He diligently performs what is naturally a pretty darn thankless job, and I can’t thank him enough for his unwavering support for the project and for myself all these months.  Any MLI fan owes him a debt of gratitude for all he’s done.

After Zeus, another member of our team who I should mention without delay is dawnmew.  Much like Zeus, Dawn wasn’t officially recruited by the team; rather, she approached me via email and we started talking about technical things, such as the format in which case information is stored.  I very quickly found out that I really had absolutely no idea what in the world I was doing.  Thankfully, however, she certainly did, and helped completely turn my incredibly terribly designed and exploit-prone storage setup into one that was orders of magnitude better.

She also approached me about doing a port to Java, as well.  Initially her proposal was that she would do the port solely to get the game to run on Mac and Linux – the game’s original incarnation was in XNA, which was Windows-only.  After we started talking, however, we quickly realized and agreed that there was no reason to restrict this Java implementation of the game to Mac and Linux when Java also runs on Windows.  So, with her help, we did a full port of everything we had over to Java, and thanks to her help and vision in that regard, our brony compatriots on Mac and Linux can enjoy the game as well.

That wasn’t enough technical wizardry for her, though; she also completely tore out and re-implemented the audio engine in the game, replacing the massive, bloated engine that came with the framework we were using with a very minimal, lightweight one.  This helped get RAM usage way, way down compared to the way things used to be; it facilitated ease of musical looping in the game; and just overall was an awesome piece of work that I imagine not enough will appreciate as much as they should.  Much like MLI would not exist today with respect to gameplay and coherent cases thanks to Zeus’ help, it’s equally not a stretch to say that MLI also would not exist today with respect to the technical side if it weren’t for dawnmew.  She’s largely stood with Zeus as the other completely unsung member of the team who was absolutely vital but whose story has thus far been unsung, something that I’d also love to fix in the future.

Kicking off the artistic side of things, HallowGazer and TehJadeh have been a seriously amazing tag-team of awesome on the dialog character art front.  If you’ve ever caught yourself liking the look of the characters as they talk during a conversation, you can know that that’s the work of these two.  HallowGazer is responsible for the initial sketches and then the final line art, and then TehJadeh turns that into finalized vector art.  None of the characters in the game could say a word were it not for these two!  Interestingly enough, this was not actually at all the position that TehJadeh applied for — she applied for the part of Scootaloo’s voice actor, which she also got — but after she was brought on board she quickly showed herself to have some serious artistic chops as well, and she fit right in being the other half of HallowGazer’s operations on the team.

Second, we have WarpOut, our resident animation wizard.  He’s our field character artist, and does all of the work required to get characters able to walk around each scene.  We’ve had a lot of people comment on how amazingly fluid and awesome the characters’ animations are out in the field, and if you’re in that camp, then I have to let you know that that’s really all WarpOut.  He’s done some truly stellar work here, and the game’s so much better than it otherwise might’ve been thanks to his contributions.

The My Little Investigations Field

The My Little Investigations Field

Third, there’s PonyArtist, our background maestro.  We had some trouble early on in terms of the perspective that we wanted to employ for the backgrounds in the game, which resulted in some churn especially for PonyArtist, but she took it like a champ, brushed it off, and produced some phenomenal work when all was said and done.  The way in which she’s able to take areas in Ponyville and convert them to a format that works well for our game, all while still keeping it very much in line with the show’s style, has been absolutely fantastic, and I’m so glad to have her on the team.

Last among visual artists, but certainly not least by any stretch, there’s Rautakoura, our cutscene chef.  His job is quite different from the other three, but no less important: he’s the one who provides us with the full-scene images depicting a particular moment in time, for illustrative purposes during flashbacks or other purposes during cutscenes.  He’s provided us with many absolutely stellar works of art already that perfectly captured moments in time, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing what else he’s got up his sleeve!

Next up, we’ve got Trot Pilgrim, our marvelously magical music man.  All of the background music that you hear in the game to date, from the cheery music around Ponyville to the tense suspense music at the end of the demo, was all his doing.  He’s got an immense talent for composition, and has been wonderful to work with—it’s always such a delight to see him release an update on a song or a brand new song he’s just starting work on to see him work his wonders.  I can’t wait to see what other music he’ll come up with for the rest of the case!

Kicking off the voice actor section of things, we’ve got PrincessRil, who stars as everyone’s favorite magical unicorn, Twilight Sparkle.  Ril has had by far the biggest vocal work load on the project, but she just chewed through that script like it was nobody’s business.  Not only that, but she also has been very available over instant messaging, which has made working with her very easy and pleasant.  She went above and beyond the call of duty in the run-up to the release of the case one demo, too, and recorded several last-minute lines that were definitely wonderful to have and added to the experience.  She’s an all-around great woman to work with.

Next up, we have ThatCanadianDude, voice actor for Rover.  I list him here because that’s not by any means all he’s done — he’s also been an invaluable help when it comes to scriptwriting.  He’s got a real knack for humor, and was responsible for a large portion of the side dialog seen in the case 1 demo.  Not only that, but he absolutely nails Rover as well, and I for one am loving the thought of seeing what material he gives us when we get to the Diamond Dogs in case one.

After that, we’ve got LoveKiku, voice actor for Rarity and Sweetie Belle, though we’ve only thus far seen the former character in the game.  I for one am incredibly proud of her, because the internet masses were somewhat disapproving of her rendition of Rarity in the voice actor introduction video we did way back in January, but just about everyone is in agreement that she absolutely knocked Rarity out of the park in the case one demo, and I’m completely with them on that.  She’s done a fantastic job so far in case one.

Next, you can’t go wrong with the always-awesome BreeFaith, who’s playing Pinkie Pie and Apple Bloom (although we’ve only seen Apple Bloom thus far).  She’s best known for her rendition of Pinkie Pie, but I think I speak for many in saying that she’s also impressed us immensely with her bang-on version of Apple Bloom as well.  She brings incredible life to every character she plays, and we’re thrilled to have her on board.

Flootershai is next up, playing a wonderful version of the Mayor for MLI.  In addition to that, she’s also provided us some great feedback regarding the audio in the game, which we definitely appreciate.  She’s only had a very brief appearance to date, but have no fear—she’ll be back later in case one.  It’s great to have her on board.

And then we have HoodedYellowPony, performing double duty as the voice of both Fido and Spot, and nailing both of them perfectly.  He’s only been heard very briefly at the start of the case one demo thus far, but you can certainly expect to see much more of him in the later stages of case one!

Finally, we also have DivinexRose playing Rainbow Dash.  Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to showcase her at all to date, because Rainbow Dash hasn’t shown up yet at the conclusion of the case one demo.  However, we definitely haven’t forgotten about her, and we’re looking forward to working with her very soon.

ZeusAssassin: I could say so much about the talent Gabu and I recruited for this project, but I don’t want to merely repeat what he said since he pretty much nailed everything I was going to say. So, why not talk about Gabu himself? I can say that he has been an amazing person to work with for these past 9 months. He’s also been pretty level headed and patient throughout the whole project. There were times were lack of communication among team members derailed our progress, but Gabu was able to help bring things back on track by staying in constant communication with everyone.

Plus, he’s extremely encouraging to others. Anytime a member of the team would feel down or depressed, he would always be there to get them on their feet. I can attest to this myself since I felt pretty ignored by the fans at times since, well, my work is pretty under the radar. As Gabu said, I make sure things are organized and that we have a consistent, steady direction towards completion. I have already contributed many things to the project and fans will begin to see that as more of the case is released. Overall, working on this team has been amazing so far and I REALLY can’t wait until the first case is complete. To my fellow team members, continue to be awesome!

WarpOut: I would like to add that when I came aboard this team, there was this amazing reception on the forum. I made friends and had a great time, everything went so smoothly. This was the first real team I worked with as an animator and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The atmosphere is great, Gabu and Zeus make sure we don’t feel pressured and they are always there to listen and give us feedback. We are also free to comment and give feedback on the work of our fellow team members. This is great for exchanging ideas and fine tuning every piece of work we put out there. When the demo came out it was just amazing to see everything fall together so well. Thank you, guys.

TehJadeh: There’s not much else for me to say without repeating what was already said, so I’ll just say that working with these guys is just awesome. Gabu and Zeus are always encouraging us to do our best, never stress us out, and they are always understanding of our personal situations, as is everyone else. The team is just amazing, and I’m always blown away by everyone’s hard work.

ThatCanadianDude: Once again, nigh on everything has already been said. Even the compliments to Gabu and Zeus are getting a tad overdone at this point. Though I do wish to thank them for allowing me to do more than just record some voice work, then sit in the cupboard under Gabu’s  sink while I waited for my next line.

Continued on Page Two…

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