A few years ago, when I was employed with a video game magazine, one of my more enjoyable duties was meeting and making contacts with new upcoming artists. I would wander the artist alley at different conventions, in search of hot new talent and talk to them about artwork and possibly doing some commissions for the publications I worked for. Yeah, it was a fun gig, and I made a lot of great friends with some of awesome artists.
One year, Anime Expo 2008, I came across an artist who, in addition to some amazing artwork, had a laptop on his table. Running on the laptop looked to be a 2D hand drawn fighting game and a cute girl with some sort of monstrous parasite on her head instead of hair. The game was Skull Girls and the creator/artist was Alex Ahad. Intrigued, I began asking questions about the game, the characters, the art style, all of which Alex was more than willing to answer. I liked the game and art so much I bought his sketchbooks to show to my publisher. This led to Skull Girls being featured in Girls of Gaming Volume 6, two years before it would be officially picked up to be published and scheduled for release on PSN and Xbox Live.
In Skull Girls, the action takes place in the fictional Canopy Kingdom where players, as one of the stunningly gorgeous yet lethal female characters, vie (I.E. kick each other’s butts. It is a fighting game after all) for a mysterious artifact known as the Skull Heart. The Skull Heart has the power to grant wishes, but at a terrible cost. If the person who obtains the artifact isn’t a pure soul, along with their wish they will be transformed into a frightening monster.
At this years Anime Expo, I caught up with Alex, no longer in artist alley but on the actual Anime Expo convention floor proper, along with an official Skull Girls booth. We discussed the soon to be completion of his masterwork opus, the journey it took to get to this point, and what may lie ahead.
Daniel C.: Ok, to start off, what was the inspiration behind Skull Girls.
Alex Ahad: Well, if you are talking about the character direction itself, I think I’ve always been a fan of these types of characters. The cast of Skull Girls was initially just a bunch of character designs I had piled up over time as it’s just something I enjoy doing during my free time anyway. Particularly, creating monster girl type characters. They’re kind of badass and cute, but also have a dark vicious side to them. So I had enough characters with this kind of motif to them, that I compiled them into a hypothetical cast. I met Mike (Zaimont) later on and he had a game engine but no characters, so we were able to meet up and make this thing happen.
DC: That’s really great. For years now, I’ve spoke with you at conventions, usually in artist alley where you would be set up with a single laptop running an earlier version of the game, and now you are in the Anime Expo exhibit hall proper with a great set-up, PS3s, and multiple screens. When you found out after all these years that Skull Girls was actually gonna happen and be done, what was your feeling?
AA: Even to this day, it still feels kind of surreal when I think about it. In the office I hear people saying character names like Parasoul or Cerabella, talking about them in the context of trying to figure something out as a crazy team effort, and it’s mind-blowing. It was a long process of pitching the game to different people, so I’ve been getting use to the notion of dedicating an increasing amount of time to the game, but it’s still surreal knowing that we have an office and that I’m doing this full time. It’s pretty exciting, but also sometimes it’s also beyond my comprehension.
AA: This is my day job! And it’s still like my night job too! (laughs) It’s pretty much my everything right now. It consumes my time all day.
DC: Fantastic! So you said you have piles of character designs. How many characters will be in the final release of the game?
AA: There is gonna be an initial release of a roster. I think I’m officially allowed to say about 8 characters, but the general plan is to have DLC to add on later because there are plenty of characters designed. Ideally we will get to them.
DC: Or secret characters that will unlock after you do certain things?
AA: I don’t know if I can go into that, but there are things like that in mind.
DC: I’ve seen you talk a bit about some of the inside jokes in the game such as Kuribo’s Shoe from Super Mario Brother 3. Any hints for other Easter eggs we may see in the game?
AA: Well, a lot of the color palettes for the characters are references also. Like for Filia’s alternate color, it was intentionally a play on Hatsune Miku’s colors. Other characters like Peacock and Cerebella have a few of these as well. As you go to other characters you will see random references in the color palettes or in the lines that they say. I guess the most references you will see will probably be with Peacock, because she is kind of a joke character and has a sense of humor. It kind of fits with her personality. So probably the most with her, but you’ll see references with other characters too.
DC: I was actually going to ask if Filia’s teal color palette was supposed to look like Hatsune Miku…
AA: Oh yeah, it totally is. That’s on purpose.
DC: So this is getting pretty big. And you’ve been nominated for some awards already.
AA: Yeah, we got nominated for a lot of “Best Fighting Game” awards after E3 and I think we got “Best in Show” from Shonen Jump which is pretty amazing. So I guess we are award-winning now. It’s kinda cool. (laughs)
DC: The game itself, will it be a disc release or fully downloadable?
AA: It is a downloadable game. The initial game is downloadable and then the DLC is obviously also downloadable. So it’s all online. No disc at this point.
DC: Before the interview started I saw that there was a cosplayer here actually dressed like Filia. How does it feel to see your creation that you have been drawing for years walking around on the Anime Expo floor?
AA: Oh man, it’s just mind-blowing to see people cosplaying as my characters! I always wondered if… I mean I wasn’t sure if this character could be physically possible, but then the cosplayers find a way to make it actually happen. Like with the teeth or the hair… it really is just mind-blowing. I don’t know if I’ll ever get use to seeing that. In a good way obviously. It’s just like wow. It’s so cool.
DC: How freaked out would you be if you saw someone walking around as Peacock or Cerebella, with all the intricacies of those costumes.
AA: Oh yeah, that’s another one that I wouldn’t think would be possible. I would like to see someone take on that challenge. I like to see things that I wouldn’t think would be possible as cosplay being done, so secretly I’m hoping to see these. Almost just from an engineering standpoint to see how they would do Peacock’s arms or even just her face and getting that across.
DC: The art for Skull Girls is all your designs. How long does it take to go from the first sketches of a character to the final animation we see on screen?
AA: Well the idea itself is relatively fast because it’s just like a key frame, however when it comes to executing the full process, that takes a huge team effort to fully animate something. I would try to animate as many of them as I can, but to be realistic I have to be sure to spread my time evenly managing the general art direction of the game. Especially these days. But particularly with Filia I ended up doing a bunch of them because that was when I was doing this during my free time before the game was picked up. So a lot of Filia’s stuff I was involved with, but even then I was contacting people to help me. So it’s a real team effort when it comes to the animation. But your question was how long does it take. It’s weird to estimate, because we work on different characters simultaneously, but I would say it takes two to three months generously to make a single character. While other characters would be finishing up, I would be working on the preparation of the next character, those key frames I was talking about. So ideally it’s staggered in a way that keeps it flowing. But from start to finish, two to three months per character.
AA: Yeah, so it’s kind of a tight schedule that we are on and we have to get that worked out in an efficient manner.
DC: Is there a firm release date for the game?
AA: It’s more of a tentative date. It’s slated for later this year, but it’s still kind of loose. We can’t pin a definitive date on it yet, because there are still a lot of things we are figuring out and a lot of stuff to build on.
DC: When the game comes out and sells like gangbusters, obviously there will probably be a sequel, but my question is do you have any ambitions to try something other than a fighting game, like say a RPG or a platformer?
AA: I would definitely love to explore other genres of games. Like for example Metroidvania (an adventure platforming game in the vein of Metroid or Castlevania) is one of my favorite genres, so I’d like to try a game like that or maybe give shot to a Beat’em Up. There are tons of ideas we toss around in the office all the time of the different game genres we would like to explore, because we are all pretty experienced and passionate gamers. We definitely have a preference when it comes to what type of genres we would like to try. I’ve heard stuff like Tactically RPG or Metroidvania, which is one I vouch for, or Beat’em Ups and many more. Reverge collectively has a couple other projects that they have under development, but for me personally I would love to try a few different genres in the future too.
DC: Ok, well that’s it! Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
AA: Cool! Thank you!
Alex was also nice enough to contribute a couple original sketches of Filia for our article. Thanks Alex!!
Skull Girls releases later this year for PS3 and XBOX360. For more details visit the official website at http://www.skullgirls.com/
Publisher: Autumn Games
Studio: Reverge Labs
Genre: 2D Fighting