An Interview With … – Julian Maroda

Julian Maroda, the Minister of Creation at Norsfell Games and Internationale Provocateur at Re5et Co., graced me with a moment out of his very busy schedule to talk about his upcoming Indie game, WinterForts: Exiled Kingdom, which will be released on iOS and Android devices. His fancy title means that he’s responsible for all manner of vision, design and business for the company.

Based out of Montreal, QC, Norsfell was once known by the name Pixel Molotov. Under that moniker the company had released a wonderful title to PC and the Xbox Live Indie Games market. FromPulse was their first foray into the Indie Dev space, and from the the looks of their newest title, they’ve got another great game on their hands.

Me:    Hey Jules. Thanks for taking the time to talk about what you guys are doing. How about you start off by telling me who you are and what you’re about.

Julian:    We’re currently a part of the Execution Labs, a unique platform helping independent game developers produce the games they want to make and bring those games to market. Norsfell is currently working on WinterForts, a mobile war strategy game. Oh, and I’ve just launched a gaming clothing line as well called RE5ET Co. And I’m originally from Brussels, Belgium. Hi Belgium!

Me:    Nice. I don’t think I have the cojones to give a shout out to the entirety of a country. Please, continue.

Julian:    I grew up in Brussels, Belgium. A city of about 1 million people clouded by grey rain. I had a great childhood!


Julian:    No, really! I received my first video game console when I was 5, it was a Sega Genesis (or Megadrive as we call it in Europe) with Sonic The Hedgehog. It was a revelation for me, and being an only child, I quickly grew very fond of the system and games in general.

Growing up with consoles (PC came much later into our house), I’ve always had an attraction for pick-up & play games where the control of an avatar and the feel associated to it are of the utmost importance. Now I tend to try a bit of everything on nearly every platform possible.

Me:    What lead to your jump into the Indie Dev scene?

Julian:    My teammates and I always wanted to work on our own stuff, to create our games, to be the masters of our own vision. So naturally, even while working for other companies, we started building games on the side in addition to our full time jobs.

I started as a game designer in the industry because I wanted to craft new interactive experiences for the players. I LOVE writing game design documents! I love to put my hands right into it and design every low level system possible. I’m a very design focused person at the core.

Now that we have our own company, I also do the PR and business side of things, which is also fun. The part I find most exciting during the creation of a project is the beta phase, when everything is roughly set up and polish comes in. First playable is always the toughest.

Me:    How far along in the development process are you with WinterForts?

Julian:    We’re rushing faster than a snow blizzard, that’s what we’re up to!! We’re so close to releasing WinterForts: Exiled Kingdom worldwide that the pressure is immense and that the team is crunching to fine tune the gameplay to build the best possible experience for our players. Mind you, WinterForts is already available in limited launch in several key countries.

Me:    Why a limited release?

Julian:    Well, several reasons. When doing a F2P, it’s always important to remember that your game is never going to be finished. Far from it. You listen to your players and support them with constant updates that make the game better month after month. And to avoid disappointing a large part of your audience due to early crashes and inconsistencies, you want to stress test your game in a few countries before releasing it worldwide.

Me:    Being so entrenched in the Industry, as you are, what type of Idol worship do you do?

Julian:    As for persons of inspiration go … I can clearly name a few: Miyamoto, Bleszinski and Suda 51 are my favorite creators because they each have their own style and because I’ve learned so much game design by playing their games. On the business side, Gabe Newell (Valve), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo), Elon Musk (Tesla), Alex Thabet (Ludia) and more recently Rami Ismail (Vlambeer) have been really good sources of inspiration.

Me:    Hmm. For extra points, what time period you would choose to live over our current time period? Go!

Julian:    Ah! Good question! Probably during the great expeditions to the new world. I find it fascinating to think of those men jumping on rudimentary ships to sail to the unknown in hopes of finding a better future. It’s a bit sad that we know about every piece of land on Earth today, it kills the mystery. (Let’s go to spaaaace instead!)

Me:    What type of crazy shenanigans do you get into during your down time?

Julian:    I love hanging out with friends. And partying.

Me:    Sweet. I love being invited to parties with new friends. I’m just throwing that out there.

Julian:    …

Me:    We’ll table that for later. Tell me how to pick up Magic Man Julian. What’s the secret to know? For Science!

Julian:    I’m a big eighties fan! Did I say that I had a role in the upcoming over-the-top action comedy movie, Kung Fury? I’m very proud of that!

Me:    Cue the picture of an over-sized fan built in the 1980’s. Nope, I’m not seeing any thing pop up. Barry, where’s the picture?

Wait! What the deuce/ and how much can you tell about that?

Julian:    (Haha) It was an awesome experience really!

When I discovered the project, I was like “that’s the best goddamn thing ever!’. Being such a fan of the eighties, and having just launched RE5ET, I was really into it. So I made it happen 😉

We got in touch, we set a date, and I flew to Umeå, Sweden for a weekend. Long trip was long, with 3 flights to get there and a return trip of about 24h with all the connections. Still, it was 100% worth it. Who would have thought that I would ever be part of a movie, wear a retro mullet, kill a guy with a boombox, try some snus, have an American barbecue, eat djungelvrål for desert, see the sun at 3am, “borrow” random bikes in the city, visit Stockholm with a local guide and meet so many amazing people in one weekend. The Kung Fury experience.

Me:    Where were we? If you had stayed in the position you were at before jumping into game design, would you still be creating games today?

Julian:    I could be. Before switching to game design, I was programmed to be a marketing specialist of some kind. Even then I wanted to work in the game industry, but at one point I asked myself: do I really want to be on this side of the fence? The answer was clear and I moved to Montreal to study game design at the Ubisoft Campus. The rest is history.

Me:    That’s a Cinderella story right there. I can just end the interview now and we can all go home. Actually, I have a few more questions. So…

Coming off Pixel Molotov’s great release of FromPulse, creating Norsfell, and going into such a beautiful build as WinterForts, do you feel you’ve hit a stride into your own Indie success story?

Julian:    We haven’t encountered any big successes yet, so I wouldn’t say we’ve succeeded already, but we’re moving forward. I think one of our most important strengths is that we are a bunch of friends that know each other very well. Rami Ismail would disagree with that being a strength (lol), but I believe it does make a difference. It’s also that all four of us are really complementary: we have one artist who is also an integrator, one front-end dev that is also a back-end dev, one producer who is also a front-end dev, and one designer (myself) who is also a marketer. This helps a lot in defining the roles of each one of us in the company. It also helps that we’ve worked for several years in the industry before making the big jump. Oh and we have an economic designer who recently joined us too!

Me:    After a hard day’s grind, what do you do to relax?

Julian:    I tend to revitalize a lot, so I don’t often feel too stressed. Also, I absolutely love to take hot baths, I couldn’t live without them! They give me the opportunity to take a break, think things through and decide what steps to take next with Norsfell and RE5ET Co.

Me:    At what point in your life did you decide to get into the gaming business?

Julian:    I’d say when I was a teen, but I have to admit that I started doubting I’d be able to make it at one point. Thing is, the video game industry is not really developed in Belgium. So I had to look abroad. When I found an opportunity in Montreal I decided to try my luck and left friends and family to start a new life. I don’t regret it at all. The lesson here is: if you want something badly, believe in yourself and you’ll have it!

Me:    There are a lot of Indie games swelling the various marketplaces these days. What do you think about the staying power of “Indie” as its own form of currency?

Julian:    I believe indie games are here to stay thanks to the democratization of technology and Internet. Creating a game 10 years ago was a tough endeavor. You needed to purchase expensive tools, strike deals with publishers, get your game printed on physical supports. All of this has changed now resulting in an entry barrier that has never been so low.

Some indie games might strike deals with bigger corporations but they’ll always be replaced by newer ones. As long as those affordable tools and open digital platforms exist, the indie scene will keep flourishing and it will flourish through innovation.

I’d say Unity has a lot more to do with it nowadays. Almost every indie developer I meet uses this technology. The same goes for us. And since it’s so versatile, it’s easy to see why.

Me:    It’s becoming so much easier, as stated earlier, to build games since the advent of the cross-platform game development application, Unity, do you think this technology will bridge the gap between the corporate developer and the indie developer levels?

Julian:    That’s an interesting question. We already see this happening every now and then among big corporations like Ubisoft trying something different with games like Blood Dragon or Child Of Light, taking the bet that developing smaller games with smaller teams and smaller budgets can still be a lucrative process, but those examples are rare. Indies are about the people, whereas corporations are about the branding. That still makes a big difference.

Me:    Shifting gears a little bit, tell us your stance on the issue of Piracy?

Julian:    I believe that if your game is engaging and that your company respects its players, those players will always be eager to give you money back. From what we see today, piracy will probably lessen in the upcoming years with the advent of always online games. It’s already happening a lot in the mobile game space. It’s been happening for years on PC. It will happen soon on the new generation of consoles.

Me:    How do you feel about the design shifts, as of later years, from cooperative play to competitive play in games?

Julian:    It is true that competition is more often used in game design than cooperation. Hell, even cooperative games like Castle Crashers have elements of competition. (Sometimes called “co-opetition”)I think the reason for this is very human and psychological. People like to compare themselves to others, and the easiest way to do so is through competition. It is also sad to note that split screen multiplayer is an endangered species. Some of my most fond memories are from playing games on a couch with friends.

Me:    Do you have a Favorite Developer?

Julian:    Not one but several. Valve, Nintendo, Rockstar, Sega, and Grasshopper Manufacture are among my favorites. No favorite mobile developer at the moment, though. (Maybe Supercell?) I’ll wait for the market to mature to decide on that.

Me:    Can you give us any insight into your development process?

Julian:    Being a mobile developer now, we try to have short development cycles of about 6 months, then ship the game to a few countries to see how it does. Then we tweak and then launch globally three months later. So we try to stay in the 9 months time frame. (Like giving birth to a child!)

We have an awesome partnership with Babel Media, a company which provides complete outsourced testing and localization, and have used their services extensively over the past 3 months. But for a game that is always-online and features PvP battles, it simply is impossible to simulate the sheer scale of having thousand players competing together at the same time. Hence, the limited release.

Me:    Do you feel you have secured yourself as an Indie Developer rooted in the Indie Scene? What advice would you give an up-and-comer trying to break into a stable role, or just trying to get a product out on the wire?

Julian:    Not yet. From what I can see, this usually happens when you’ve released a popular game or when you get exposure through talks at conferences. Start by interacting with people, go to events, show what you’re working on, don’t be afraid. It’s a very natural process.

Me:    Plug your game for us before you go.

Julian:    Norsfell is currently developing WinterForts: Exiled Kingdoms, a mobile online war strategy game. You take control of a lone castle set in a cold and icy magical realm. Life is tough out there. Your role as the King of the House is to rebuild this castle and expand to forge new alliances and claim the top thrones! The game revolves around 2 aspects:

A management mode, where you erect constructions, upgrade buildings, produce military troops and prepare defenses to protect yourself against other players much like in a tower defense game. We have a pretty cool block system allowing you to easily create a maze of corridors to try lose the enemy. That part is all about set-up, since you’ll never actually defend live against an attack. These can only happen while you’re not playing the game.

Then there is the attack mode, where you actually enter a battle with your troops in PvE and PvP missions. There, you come crashing with your armies at the gates of other players or NPC’s to steal their precious resources and speed up the growth of your own castle. It also allows you to grind for epic loot and to climb in the leaderboards. In battle, each troop has its own behavior, strengths and weaknesses, providing a unique strategic experience.

Me:    I’ll have links put up.

Julian:    As for the clothing line, RE5ET Co. aims to bring all the coolness of the eighties back to offer fresh and colorful apparels inspired by a west coast cocktail of palm trees, arcades, tigers, neon and disco. Put your power gloves on, and head over to RE5ET (dot) Com for more info!

Me:    I’m sure I’ll have that up as well.

Julian:    It’s a fun project I had in mind for quite a while, and I’m very happy to see it come true. #SunsetOfPlay

Me:    Is that a hashtag we need to start trending? I’ll throw it in some tweets. We’ll make it happen. What’s a dream project of yours?

Julian:    I would have loved to work on all those Sega games during the Dreamcast era. This remains one the Golden Ages of the industry, from my standpoint.

Me:    I’d like to end with an off-the-wall question. Does this Interview make my butt look big?

Julian:    Tremendously huge! (lol) Wait, what?

Me:    Well, sir, thanks again for the time. I look forward to talking to you again after at your release party.  

Written by Ryan Helms 

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