Run for Kova – The 2D Sci-Fi RPG That Bleeds Style & Talent From Every Pixel

Written By: Erika Haase

Black Hive Media has a hit on their hands. Husband and wife developer team Blake and Mandy Lowry of Austin, Texas have a laser focus on creating the world of Kova which centers around the ever-present desire to search for intelligent life in the universe. In Kova’s universe, humanity has already achieved space-travel. Unfortunately, we took human nature with us. In some ways, that’s a great thing – the curiosity and drive for continued exploration, for example. Other things, however, like human rights issues, resource shortages, and political agendas have followed us as well. At the center of all this strife is one mercenary, the titular Kova, and her decisions, discoveries, and allegiances with any of the three main factions in the game will determine the player’s journey as secrets of the universe are slowly revealed that will shine light on the age-old Fermi Paradox.

If you’re not up to date on your sci-fi lingo or paradoxical definitions, the key principle of the Fermi Paradox is the contradiction between us not having discovered other life in the universe versus the high probability for the existence of alien civilizations. Based on the ability of intelligent life to evolve and colonize, it seems statistically impossible that no other intelligent life forms are technologically advanced, or seeking out resources in space. In short, why are we still alone? In Kova, you’ll be tackling that question head on after discovering a mysterious signal on an otherwise uninhabited and unclaimed ice-planet. Who left it there, and who is it trying to communicate with?

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Kova’s pre-alpha demo has several playthroughs available to watch on YouTube which highlight its high levels of polish and seamless blends of Metroidvania and RPG elements. Described by its own creators as being a “2D Mass Effect” when asked for the closest comparison, it is also a game for anyone who’s a fan of strong narrative, player choice, cyberpunk vibes, and exploring brave new worlds. After an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign, Black Hive Media has refused to quit. Within a week of submitting the prototype to ID@XBOX, Microsoft’s self-publishing program for the Xbox One, Kova was approved for distribution on the console which can be notoriously tricky to get approval on. It has also been Greenlit on Steam.

You can watch the demo played through to completion below if you haven’t had this trip across your social media feed just yet. There are several out there, but I thought this one did a good job of showing the UI as well as the game play.

I got a chance to speak with the coder and artist team behind Kova myself, since I’m passionate to see this project come to life and share the word. Read on and discover Kova for yourself, as well as find out how you can still financially support the title post-Kickstarter campaign if you think it’s worth your time and support.

Interview with Creators of Kova

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Mandy Lowry – Programmer & Co-Founder Black Hive Media
Blake Lowry – Artist/Designer & Co-Founder Black Hive Media

/BCG: Huge welcome to both of you, and thanks for coming to /BCG’s corner of the Internet to talk about Kova.

Blake Lowry: Definitely!  Thank you for having us!  Never have done a formal chat interview before!

Mandy Lowry: Yup first for us, thanks for taking the time to chat with us!

/BCG: Before we dive into what Kova is, and why everyone needs to be paying attention to it, let’s pause for a moment and talk about the obvious. Last week your Kickstarter ended unsuccessfully, but you had a really positive outlook update post on having a Plan B even before you took it on. Now, in just one week since the end of the KS campaign, you’ve had a very major opportunity come your way. Can you talk about that opportunity? And, since it’s really fresh, do you want to give your thoughts on those last few hours of the KS campaign and why it’s so important to stay positive?

BL: “Opportunity” meaning approved to release on Xbox?

/BCG: Oh yes, that little Twitter announcement about ID@XBOX. Massive congrats!

BL: Thanks!  Yes, we’ve been working with ID@BOX for a while now.  We were originally approved developers in late 2015, and have been using the devkits to prototype different ideas.

BL: Kova was never officially submitted until just last week.  The guys there played a prototype and moved pretty quickly with the approval.  They are great to work with, but definitely require more than say mobile or Steam to get published.

ML: While securing resources is important to helping develop Kova, the other half of putting our game out there was to generate an organic interest surrounding the project, and coming out of the campaign we have met some incredible people and succeeded in that.  It’s the push that keeps us going on the project.  If we ditched our project at any time, it would be like abandoning our friends, so we pushed through to the end just like we are pushing Kova forward.  It obviously will not be at the pace we hoped for, but we will keep the game going.

/BCG: Yea, and that passion is what makes or breaks a title. I was just at Tribeca Games Festival this past Saturday and those sentiments were echoed by both Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo when he described how he just “had to” make Firewatch, as if there was no question, and then Ken Levine echoing that at the end of the night saying how “everything good in life will have heartbreak” and emphasizing how you have to want it with everything you got

BL: Exactly.

ML: That’s awesome! And I think you are right… having that passion or not, it will show in your creation.

/BCG: I noticed something special about the way you handled your Kickstarter versus others that I’ve either monitored or supported. Usually the updates and streams of communication start flooding in once a project is funded, but you’ve been super in touch with your fan base during the campaign in very meaningful ways. Naming creatures, planets, etc. you’ve made everyone feel like part of the development process. How has this helped motivate you both, and will you continue that level of interactivity moving forward?

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Devorus was named during the KS campaign in a vote

ML: It is super motivating! Even now that the Kickstarter is over, we are going to publish a weekly Devlog on kovagame.com to keep in touch with everyone and keep everyone engaged.  At the beginning of our Kickstarter we said that we wanted everyone to be a part of this journey with us and we are staying true to that.  Everyone who wants to can have their say in various things! Naming the first planet and first creature are just the beginning. We have 6 planets, NPCs, creatures, plants, the list goes on…

/BCG: That’s really exciting. I really liked seeing the voting on creatures and that building of community. It lets everyone see the ideas flying around, it’s great. That energy is infectious

ML: We think so too, and it is cool from our standpoint seeing everyone’s ideas and how they thought up names! It’ll be rewarding knowing the stories behind the names (and other concepts) when Kova launches.

/BCG: Definitely – like backstory that you guys get to see play out while writing your own

/BCG: So, let’s get into Kova – this is such a great, mysterious game that’s itching to be put out into the world. I was getting flashbacks to shareware PC games of the 90s that I can’t even remember the names of, but also as many people have stated, thought of Mass Effect. I’m also going to throw in getting a few Deus Ex and early Fallout vibes. It’s so exciting seeing those retro and current memories collide. Can you tell our readers what you feel is one of the most compelling aspects of this game? What are you most excited to bring us?

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BL: I’m most excited about the atmosphere in Kova.  My first approach to creating the worlds is making sure the atmosphere is thick, both visually and audibly.  The games that have kept me around the longest and engaged are games with great atmosphere.  While it’s not exactly in the realm of Deus Ex or Limbo, Donkey Kong Country was probably one of my earliest experiences with a game that put a lot of effort in building a rich atmosphere through sound and video.

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ML: Yeah, we’ve had a to describe this game so many times and the easiest way is still to say a 2D Mass Effect. Heh.  I love a good sci-fi (or even a bad one), and so many take place in a future full of other intelligent aliens, so I think the most compelling aspect is the idea that even in the future in an expanded galaxy, the search for Intelligent life is still on. In the here and now, we want to believe and to have a storyline play out with a similar interest is very intriguing to me.

BL: “I want to believe.” 😀

/BCG: I’m already whistling the X-Files theme.

BL: Hahahah.

ML: And I thought nobody would notice. 🙂

/BCG: I’ve watched the playthrough on the ice planet, which is pre-alpha footage, but looking super tight and polished. I wanted to call out how well the RPG elements shine through, along with really good strategy in resource management for Kova’s suit. It may seem just like a side-scroller until that menu opens up and you see the customization options and upgrades. Can you talk about your integration of a Metroidvania game into a story-rich RPG environment?

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Upgrade trees for Kova’s suit, as well as other tabs that promise RPG immersion
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Upgrading on the go, slick menus keep you on top of repairs

BL: We’re definitely setting out to blur genre lines.  There are so many aspects to different genres that we do like, but sometimes feel like the formula has been played out, or done enough.  We are fans of the gated access mechanics of Metroidvanias, but we’re also wanting to bring in some rich character building, which is something that is more common with RPGs and the interactions you have with NPCs.  With the depth in atmosphere we’re trying to develop, we needed to look beyond genres and make something that plays into the narrative in a more cohesive way.

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Unknown planets mean finding brand new resources

/BCG: I like that. Blurring genre lines is happening all over the place to varying degrees of success but I think how you’re doing it is the right way. For instance, I really liked how Kova’s suit needs upkeep and you have this aspect of needing to survive and collect resources, not just to be a completionist, but to actually accomplish your task. It’s a twist on the fetch quest of RPGs which everyone usually hates because it’s game padding, but this makes it meaningful.

BL: Yes, you’re definitely seeing successful new categories of game genres, especially with indies.  I love it!

ML: The same as Kova’s suit…you also have to maintain your ship as your fly from port to port or planet to planet. Refueling and upgrading your ship so you can reach more distant planets.

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Kova’s ship needs love, too. Don’t forget to keep it repaired!

/BCG: Kova’s story, from what’s been revealed so far, deals in some pretty smart story-telling. Taking on the Fermi Paradox, for instance, seems to be the core of the story and that’s a topic that can be discussed for…well until we find something else out there. Can you go into a little more detail about the different factions in the game and the allegiance factor you mention in the game summary? Will there be multiple endings based on these allegiances, or ripple effects to encourage multiple playthroughs?

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ML: It’s more of a ripple effect, the ending will be the same, but the journey will differ.  We have 3 factions: IAA-governing body, OM1NOUS-rebels, TRIADYNE-an R&D company.  Each will offer a different style of gameplay through missions that they will task you with, from sabotage, bounty or reclaim.  As you “partner” with a faction and complete their mission, you earn reputation with them that will allow you access to certain planets that have a faction alliance or certain areas on the planets that are exclusive to a faction.  You will also earn weapons that are associated with factions, that may help you complete missions more easily or get you through barriers.

ML: As you are approached by different Faction NPCs, you will be given options accompanied by their mission proposals.  The way you answer will have an effect on how they treat you, how they pay or trade with you or even possible future missions with them.

/BCG: I see, but it won’t entirely close off sections of the game based on what you pick, if I’m understanding correctly?

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ML: You’ll still be able to progress through the primary mission, but you may have to find another way to accomplish it. And there is still that replay value too, for those who wonder what might have been discovered had they chosen a different route.

BL: The plan is to allow the player to finish the game but still go back to explore things they may have passed.

/BCG: I’d like to point out as an important side note, I think it’s cool that we’re at a place in gaming where it once considered a shock when Samus took off her helmet and was revealed as a woman, but now with Kova, we know the main character’s a woman from the get go, and she can potentially keep the helmet on just like Master Chief. Will we ever get to see Kova, do you not want to reveal that just yet, or do you want to keep her in the mind’s eye like Tali in Mass Effect?

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BL: That’s something I think we’ll keep close to our chest for now.  🙂

/BCG: That’s fair, and to be quite honest, I’ll be happy either way!

BL: I will say that there are some things in the game we want to intentionally be obscured. We’re fans of that.  Whether it be in game or film, it’s something we appreciate.

/BCG: I know you’ve revealed one of the stretch goals of Kova is having couch co-op. There is painfully little couch co-op in the realm of non-Nintendo titles, and this definitely intrigued me. My husband and I are both huge gamers and rarely get to sit in the same place to play together. Are you still planning on implementing this feature?

ML: We are too, so that’s one reason we wanted to do couch co-op! I think more games should launch with it, it would save marriages, haha!

BL: Coming out of the Kickstarter, we have to refigure our strategy going forward.  Timeline, funding, features… it’s all things we have to look at closely as a studio to make sure whatever we do is manageable and done right.  So, co-op not something we can say definitively right now.  It is a feature we share the same feelings about as other gamers though.  We want it.

/BCG: So, let’s talk about this art style Kova has coming out of every damn pixel on the screen. It’s got this great cyberpunk, grimy sci-fi feel. It fits the character of the environments so well that even if you were operating with a AAA budget, it would probably work best.

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/BCG: Blake, can you talk a little bit about your history as an artist and how it’s factoring into Kova? As a companion question, you’ve worked on some really major art projects in your career, how do you feel they compare to the indie development process?

BL: Thank you!  My parents were both professional artists and they were supportive of my career path, although it was surprisingly very different from theirs and not something they understood.  My first real game industry job was when I was 22.  I think everything I have learned over my career is being adapted into work we’re doing on Kova.  From UI/UX, animation, and conceptual design.  The biggest difference about working as an indie is that you have other pressures, like PR, finances, and managing, which sometimes makes it harder to just sit down and “draw”, so to speak.

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/BCG: You mention the 2D animation tool, Nima, that you’re using for Kova character animations. In non-coder person terms, can you detail how this is making Kova look very “next gen” 2D for the readers who might be asking themselves, “how did they get this game to look so swanky?”

BL: Haha, sure.  Nima is a skeletal animation tool that essentially allows you to animate your drawings/paintings.  So, like a 3D model, you make your creation, rig it with bones (and a bunch of other things like converting to mesh and vert weighting, etc), then animate by keyframe.  You use a lot of the same concepts & techniques from both traditional animation and 3d animation.

/BCG: That explains that smooth look the animations have to them, then. It makes me realize why looking back at “actual” 2D looks so choppy compared to the tricks developers have available now. “Retro” has never looked so good…literally.

BL: Haha, thanks!

/BCG: Blake, it’s awesome your parents encouraged your creativity. I think art is super important and sure the game industry is booming now, but it’s sometimes a hard sell to parents who don’t “get it.”

BL: I think so too!  They don’t understand the industry at all (and in some ways, may be unsure about the direction I was headed in) but once I started making a living out of it, I’m sure it made more sense to them.  😀

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/BCG: Part of the art that goes into making a cohesively strong environment is of course, music. Another aspect of Kova that catches attention whether it’s the trailers or the pre-alpha gameplay footage is this super moody, gritty, ambient music by Adam J. Pope. The sample track from Kova he has on his SoundCloud “In Search Of Symmetry” encompasses everything from lonely dread to some pulse pounding beats. Can you talk about your process of working with Adam in scoring Kova and finding the right sound?

BL: Yea!  That track was kind of a demo track we wanted him to do to showcase his ability in all the themes.

BL: I have generally done all the sound for our projects, but this time the scope was too large for me to take that on as well.  So, we decided to bring on a composer.  We had a TON of composers messaging us, and I went through so many demos.  They just weren’t a style that jived with mine.  Finally, I came across Adam’s and not only did I see variety in his work, but I noticed some parallels in his style with what I liked.  He was also somewhat local (also from Texas) so it could make things easier.  We basically sent him a video of the game, I started rambling on about the feel we’re trying to pull off, and sent him tons of source material for inspiration.  He sent us some drafts and I got goosebumps.  We iterated a little bit then nailed it down.  We work great together.

/BCG: Mandy, you’ve stated in other interviews that the idea for Kova matured out of an earlier mobile work of yours called Chibi Chaingun. In other interviews with indie developers I’ve done, they seem to share the sentiment that the graduation from mobile to PC/console game dev is the natural progression. Did you and Blake have something of an epiphany moment where you finally decided to take both of your skill sets and take this particular idea as far as it could go?

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From Chibi Chaingun, you can see the early stages of Kova
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Also from Chibi Chaingun, Kova’s enemies look far more…hostile.

ML: From the beginning, it was a dream to eventually develop for console, but the mobile market kept us busy.  When we finally quit our jobs almost two years ago now, we knew that we wanted to finally make the transition, so we started going through the process with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.  At first, we brought Chibi Chaingun back to life, and created a few different prototypes with different genres in mind. That idea kept maturing and growing, thus the birth of Kova.

/BCG: Mandy, you are the first female coder I’ve interviewed here on /BCG, but I think another first worth mentioning is that you and Blake are my first married partnership of developers. Is life at your house one non-stop concept meeting? Is it especially fulfilling to be working so closely together on Kova? Also, just as a follow-up, any encouragement you’d like to throw out there to prospective female coders? Even the ones that are just thinking about it but might be reading this article?

ML: We are honored to be your firsts of many things! That’s neat! We do have a lot of work time; our pillow talk involves what feature is being developed next. But we have so much fun together, and we still get to have our off time too.  Back when I first started to learn how to code, it was our goal to eventually get to the point where we could work at home with each other creating the things that we are passionate about.  We are finally here and it’s one of those “pinch me” moments. We love it.

ML: It’s cool that I’m your first female coder! But also, kind of sad.  We need to keep encouraging women and girls that we can take on any role, regardless of the stereotype – what’s fun is fun! I started out knowing nothing about code, but I took baby steps, read through some online tutorials, went through some books and figured it out.  The code doesn’t care what gender is writing it, if you like writing cool programs, just do it.  You may be the only girl in class, but use that as way to empower yourself and take pride in it. That is my little rant about being a female dev, haha.

/BCG: Rant away – I was one of two girls in my high school that even PLAYED games, never mind making them. When I worked at EB Games back in the day, I was one of two women in our whole district for several years. Now there are girls in almost every GameStop you walk into. It’s changing, and I love your words “code doesn’t care what gender is writing it.”

BL: I definitely think we’re seeing a shift in the 20 to 30 something crowd. Hopefully the trend continues!

ML: Yeah, it is intimidating for any girl or grown woman to step into a room of men in any profession. We just need to keep the trend growing. There are also tons of online groups like Ladies Learning Code, Girls Who Code, and Women who Code that can be used as support groups.

/BCG: Exactly, and women should realize that half the time the men are just as nervous walking into some of those rooms! It’s about confidence, knowing you’re good, and have something to contribute.

ML: Exactly!

/BCG: Alright, so after hearing all this great stuff about Kova, when and where can players expect to find it in their hands? Do you plan for it to be released this year or next?

BL: Well, since the Kickstarter didn’t fund, things are evolving.  We’re already talking with different partners about potential ways to fund Kova, so a lot rides on the next month or so of decisions.  The Kickstarter was to get it to release sooner, which was end of this year, so I’m sure it’s probably not a leap for fans to figure how things might play out.

/BCG: Of course. Where can people support your game if they’d like to, now that there isn’t a Kickstarter? Any official channel you want to mention in closing?

BL: We’re actually taking pledges on our site at http://www.kovagame.com.  We’ve already seen a good amount of support there, and it’s all extremely appreciated and will make sure Kova releases quicker.  We set it up so that if you pledge a certain amount ($15) or more, you’ll receive a Steam key.  We’re also working on getting the Kova merchandise store up and running, which will be to supplement Kova development costs!

/BCG: Thank you both again for your time. I’ve made no secret about my support and love of this project during its Kickstarter run, as well as on /BCG’s Twitter, and I’m really excited that I got to talk with you about it. I wish you nothing but the best, I think you have a hit on your hands.

BL: Thank you so much for having us!  Fun experience, and we thank you for your support. 🙂

ML: Thank you so much for chatting with us! We had fun!

Links: 

Be sure to stay tuned at the official page for Kova: http://www.kovagame.com/ for the latest updates on the progression of Kova’s development, as well as Beta sign ups. Donation of $15 via Paypal donation gets you a Steam key at launch. There are future plans for merchandise which will be made available on this site as well. Official Kova Twitter can be followed @KovaGame.

Follow Black Hive Media on Twitter or Facebook for the latest polls and chances to name future creatures, planets, and other ways you can put your own mark on the world of Kova. I’ll leave you with a heart-kicking highlight trailer before signing off…for now.

/BCG

Disclaimer: All media is property of Black Hive Media, music Adam J. Pope, and shared with the creator’s consent. I have received no monetary compensation for this interview, all opinions are my own. I make no money if you click on any links or support Kova in any way. 

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