An Interview With Kan Reives Gao of Freebird Games
An Interview With Kan "Reives" Gao of Freebird Games
By Neal Chandran and RPGFan Staff
To the Moon's protagonists

January 29th, 2012 November 2011 is a month that brought us blockbuster titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It also brought us To The Moon, an independently developed game from Freebird Games that flew under the radar and stole not only the thunder of Skyrim and Zelda, but our hearts as well. This game is truly something special, and we're happy to present an interview with Kan "Reives" Gao of Freebird games, the mastermind behind To The Moon.

RPGFan: Thank you for taking the time out to answer our questions. Firstly, what made you interested in video game development in the first place?

KG: Thanks for the opportunity! It's an honour to be here. Well, about five years ago, it was a dark and stormy night . . . and I was banging my head against the table at a script I was working on for my pseudo novel-attempt. I started wandering around on the net, looking for ways to create interactive fiction instead. I got into more than I bargained for. I ended up digging deeper and deeper, and never looked back since.

RPGFan: What is your approach to game design? How do you go about finding the right team of people to partake in your projects?

KG: Like most indie folks, I just make what I want to play myself – while wearing thick-rimmed glasses and scarves, of course. Through the years, I've had the fortune of getting to know some wonderful and talented people through the game development communities; so when I needed help, I knew just where to turn to.

RPGFan: What are some of your favorite video games and what influence have they had on your game designs?

KG: In recent times, most BioWare games! And as for the list of nostalgic titles: Diablo, Age of Empires, and various old school RPGs. The RPGs stuck with me, of course, due to the involving way they told the stories (and for some reason, I was always more fond of their visual perspective than that of most adventure games).

RPGFan: What makes RPG Maker a favorable engine for you? What are some of its limitations you have to contend with?

KG: It simply provides everything I need, in an efficient manner, to make what I'd like to make – which really isn't technically demanding to begin with. There is a major limitation in the form of porting, though – it's becoming increasingly necessary to be able to have the game accessible on Mac and Linux, and the current engine is an impending factor.

RPGFan: There are a lot of gamers out there who say "all commercial RPG Maker games look, feel, and sound the same" or "anyone can create an RPG Maker title and sell it, but it takes real skill to make a game from scratch instead of using a box of cake mix." How would you respond to those criticisms?

KG: I think that view's somewhat understandable, actually. Some people out there take certain enjoyment from the technical skills such as programming that went into the product, and that's totally cool – it's kind of an art in itself. Though to be fair, function-wise, using a game engine vs. C++ is not unlike using C++ vs. punch cards. If the technology exists and is suitable for what one wants to do while being more efficient, then the only reason to opt for the latter would be for a display and practice of techniques. But personally, I just want to tell a story through the medium in the most efficient way possible, especially given my limited resources, so there's not much in that for me. Besides, anyone can hold a pen, but I don't see the same line of thought working out for novelists. It's just a tool, after all.

RPGFan: Have you ever thought of developing your own proprietary engine for games?

KG: Yep, mainly for the platform compatibility concerns. But the investment's quite significant, and I ended up finding some others who had more expertise and already had a similar project started.

RPGFan: Although there is a cottage industry releasing RPG Maker games for PC, with the advent of downloadable content for consoles and more robust gaming apps for mobile phones, do you have ambitions to create games for platforms such as Xbox Live, Wiiware, or the iOS?

KG: Sure, I think there's definitely potential there. And actually, a group of people are working on a tool that might eventually be able to port even RM games to some of the other platforms, so here's to hoping that pulls through!

RPGFan: Let's talk about To The Moon a little bit. It has one of the most unique and heartfelt stories many of us have seen in a video game. It reminded many of us of films like Memento, Inception, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What was your inspiration for the story and what difficulties did you face in putting such a non-"video-gamey" plot into a video game format?

KG: It was started as an attempt to turn some real life misfortunes into something meaningful, so they wouldn't have been in vain. One of the events that set up the foundations of things was my grandfather falling ill – I've never had a close family member nearing death before, so it made me think. I wondered that when I'm on my deathbed one day, if there would be anything I'd regret. I think it's something that's inescapable, and a second chance would always be a welcomed option. The difficulties were mainly abstract; it was a matter of refraining to not add token gameplay elements for the sake of making it more "gamey." At one point, I actually panicked, and decided that I'd try adding a battle system just for the sake of having one – but fortunately, the folks at the beta forum slapped me back to consciousness.

RPGFan: Since you are also a composer (To The Moon has a lovely soundtrack, by the way), I'd like to ask you how you got started in music composition?

KG: It was actually because of game-making! When I was working on my first game back then (Quintessence), a friend of mine, James, was the composer. Then one summer, he had to leave for some made-up word he called "vacation." I needed some new music at the time, so I gave it a try myself, and have been lovin' it ever since.

RPGFan: Who are some of your favorite composers (video game and otherwise) and how do they influence your approach to music?

KG: Uematsu and Mitsuda aside, I'd say Joe Hisaishi, Alan Silvestri and Inon Zur. Thomas Newman too; why not. As for influence, hm . . . I'm not sure how to describe it, as I think it's mostly subconscious. But I think the way they use melodies and recurring themes really put me on track.

RPGFan: What kinds of music do you most enjoy listening to? Do you have any favorite bands or artists?

KG: I tend to listen to film & game scores as well as musicals the most. Otherwise, JoCo, Apocalyptica, Pomplamoose, and Nightwish are all on the list.

RPGFan: Are there any genres of music, classical or contemporary, that you feel you haven't explored deeply enough but would like to experiment more with?

KG: Electronica. Or rather, I want to blend electronica with traditional orchestral music. I kind of tried to do that a bit in To the Moon, such as in the title theme. I'll probably be playing around with it more in the future – it seems quite appropriate given the sci-fi+drama genre of the games, too.

RPGFan: Where do you see the future of Freebird Games headed? Since To The Moon has garnered so much critical acclaim and set a high benchmark, do you feel pressured to capture the magic again?

KG: There definitely is the nerve-wrecking factor, but it's even more positively exciting! To the Moon is actually the first episode of a series, where each episode features the same two doctors and a different patient's life story. I think there's a lot of potential for the setup, and there are so many aspects of life with such a foundation that haven't been explored in To the Moon. I've already laid out the frames for episode 2, and am really looking forward to seeing it through.

RPGFan: Is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring indie game developers out there?

KG: Don't aim to be perfect, or things will never get done. Pace your progress with a schedule, and then double the time you gave yourself, because there will always be unexpected things coming up. It's easy to get overwhelmed when working with a small amount of resources, and then put yourself on a vacation with even worse loss. The turtle vs. rabbit race applies surprisingly well to here.

RPGFan: Any final thoughts you wish to share?

KG: I just wanted to thank everyone for the support; to the players for spreading the word, and places like RPGFan for shedding light on the project. It's thanks to all of you that I'm able to, even if just for now, make what I live to do what I love to do. I hope more fellow developers will be able to get such a fortune in the future.

And as for now, I'll try my hardest to live up to the privilege.

RPGFan would like to thank Kan R. Gao for his responses to our questions and his time!