The Artful Escape director on making "the Guns N' Roses of video games"
Johnny Galvatron tells how Beethoven & Dinosaur's debut went from a failed Kickstarter to a critically acclaimed smash hit
It's just past 9am in Melbourne when Johnny Galvatron hops into our Zoom call. He's wearing some pretty slick leopard trim shades, as though the very concept of being sentient at such a time offends him. Otherwise, he looks and sounds stoked to be here, and it's that chaotic rockstar energy that has propelled his debut game, The Artful Escape, to critical acclaim in the last year.
Even at a glance, The Artful Escape is brimming with rock and roll vigour, and Galvatron brings handfuls of that from his past life as a musician. He tells us about his time spent on tour with Transformers-inspired rock band, The Galvatrons, and the time he spent on the road.
"I signed to Warner Bros when I was quite young, and went off on tour to live that crazy rock and roll lifestyle," he tells us. "That was fun for a little while, but it wasn't really for me. I hated touring, I hated the whole thing, even now when I see a nine-seat tour van, I throw up."
"This is my first and only game. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I got two grey nose hairs from it"
Though touring live shows wasn't the best fit for Galvatron, he saw a clear path into how to make it work, and took that direction from music and aimed it towards games.
"I've been quite thoughtful with the way I've approached rock and roll," he says. "I saw the angle I could come in at, and saw the kind of people I would need to impress, and saw a similar path to get into video games."
One of the most impressive parts of The Artful Escape's story is that prior to creating it, Galvatron had never made a game before. Its initial pitch began on Kickstarter in March 2016, but the game didn't reach its financial target and the project was unsuccessful.
"I'd never made a game. This is my first and only game," he tells us. "It was extremely difficult -- the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I got two grey nose hairs from it."
One of the things Galvatron loves about rock and roll is the world creation, the satellite aspects of an artist's core medium you can create to elevate that media, whether it's narrative for an image, or a rumour, or a spectacular entrance.
"That's kind of how the game started, it's the idea of that stage personas and what I loved about them," he adds. "It's the adventure, what I thought rock and roll would be when I was 17, this world of magical doors and experiences that could be earned by 'the genius of rock and roll'."
While Galvatron was developing the game, he shared some basic work on Reddit, and around a year later, ended up sending a speculative email to Epic Games to see if it was the sort of thing it was looking to fund through its MegaGrants program, which provides indies with financial backing.
"I really needed [Epic's] 20k, I was wearing jeans so torn at the time I wasn't allowed in my local pub"
"I didn't even apply for the grant, I actually just sent them an email with a little video I'd made and asked if it was the kind of thing they're looking for and whether I should apply," he tells us.
"The next email I got was 'We're giving you 20k', and that really started my push into the scene. And I really needed that 20k, I was wearing jeans so torn at the time I wasn't allowed in my local pub."
He also tells us that around that time, production company IAm8Bit caught wind of the game, and reached out to him with the hopes of creating some merchandise for The Artful Escape. It was IAm8Bit that also put Galvatron on publisher Annapurna Interactive, which eventually published the game.
After a couple of initial conversations, Annapurna's Nathan Gary (now head of the publisher) asked Galvatron if he was going to be attending PAX 2017.
"I was like, 'yeah, Nath, I'm gonna be there. Got a table, got a demo ready. No problem, see you there'," Galvatron says. "I didn't have a table at PAX, I didn't have a demo, and I had three months to make one."
And in the next three months, Galvatron, alongside programmers Sean Slevin and Justin Blackwell, aka "the only two people in the world I knew that could make video games," worked on a demo to present at PAX.
At this point, Galvatron tells us he'd never even been to a video games conference, let alone shown anything at one.
"We got there the night before and we had this shitty little monitor, everyone else had big TVs and sets and we thought 'what have we done?'," he says. "So we borrowed some money off a friend's dad and bought a bigger TV. I went home and grabbed my guitar stuff and threw that around the place.
"At this point we'd been up for two days straight and I'm at the end of my rope just thinking 'this is gonna be a long weekend'."
Galvatron and his team didn't start their debut PAX on the best foot; he tells us they were exhausted and depressed at the beginning of the first day. But by the end, they'd had a visit from Blake Mizzi, director and co-founder of Australian indie studio League of Geeks, alongside other interests.
"We had people giving us numbers for different production companies, and a lot of different others from other publishers," he says. "Never in my life have I had such a big turnaround from the morning to the evening."
Even with all of the scrappiness, the PAX presentation was pretty much a slam dunk for Galvatron, Annapurna, and The Artful Escape.
"We made the demo, [Annapurna] rocked up, they played the game, they took me out for lunch and offered a deal, and then, victory," he says.
"It's 80's rock and roll excess, it's the Guns N' Roses of our time."
"It's 80's rock and roll excess, it's the Guns N' Roses of our time"
Despite a slew of different offers, Galvatron ultimately felt like Annapurna was the best fit for the game, and described the publisher as an "incredible bunch of people with great video game knowledge."
"It's like being up the back of the bus with the cool kids in the year above you, they just seem to know what's up," he adds. "I just felt so honoured that they even wanted to work with me in the team and it's been an absolutely joyous experience."
When development hit full swing again, The Artful Escape had a team of eight working on it and it quickly became a massive learning experience for Galvatron.
"Being given that responsibility of taking that money and making something, and then having employees and not letting them down, that was a lot of pressure," he tells us. "While trying to come through with this idea, because there's a lot of games you can point to and say that's like The Artful Escape.
"At the same time, the team that we got together was just so dedicated, and gave so much of themselves to make this game what it is, it was an incredible experience. When you're in the office and people are arguing about an idea, you could let that get you down. But I always just thought to myself, having been involved in creative projects my whole life, these people really care about what the game is going to be, and that's a fantastic feeling and a privilege."
Galvatron's background in music played a huge role in the development of The Artful Escape, and he tells us about working with Australian musician Josh Abrahams (who you may recognise from his 90s dance hit Addicted To Bass) to create a soundtrack in the first three months that is actually far less dynamic than it sounds.
"The way the guitar works was a bit of a miracle, and it worked straight off the bat," Galvatron explains. "We just thought if we can compose this part a certain way, if we make it amorphous enough that we keep the guitar in the same key and push that around a little bit, get the effects right, chuck a load of reverb on and then let it kind of flow in the mix, it should work. And blow me down it fucking did."
The pair then worked with guitar player Eden Altman, who laid down the initial guitar parts for each part of The Artful Escape, with each level played in a different key.
"Getting the guitar in and out was the hardest thing as opposed to it kind of just flowing," he adds. "And we figured out little ways to have this little harmonic or little note play when the player would stop shredding in a certain scene in the game, but then if you started playing guitar, again, because everything's in the same key, it would harmonise with the next thing you would play.
"I think the main reason it works is this kind of dark side of the rainbow theory where your brain will always look for some kind of pattern recognition. So people would play the guitar and say, 'Oh, you recorded the track so it crescendos here' and I didn't, but I'm glad you think that I did."
The Artful Escape launched day one on Game Pass, and as Galvatron tells us, the partnership with Microsoft has been incredibly beneficial to the game thus far and "a lot of people" have played the game on the platform. He also thinks that Game Pass is a valuable avenue for new teams to reach a wider audience.
"I think [Game Pass] is great for a team that's got their first game out on the market, especially for something that's not a traditional gaming experience"
"I think it's great for a team that's got their first game out on the market, especially for something that's not a traditional gaming experience," Galvatron says. "So many people played The Artful Escape that wouldn't have normally played it, and we found that if we can get the game in people's hands, we'd generally get favourable reviews.
"I couldn't think of a better way to introduce Beethoven & Dinosaur to the world. They give you a big wad of cash as well. It was a hot cash injection."
That said, Galvatron's expectations of the game's launch were somewhat tempered by his experience of making and selling music professionally.
"The night it came out, I was terrified, I wasn't sleeping at all," he says. "I don't know what I expected really; my comparison would just be from my music experience, which is where no one bought my fucking music at all, so it was lovely in that respect."
Since its release, The Artful Escape has been nominated in several awards shows across multiple categories, including three different accolades at the 2021 Game Awards, Dice Awards, and The Golden Joysticks. It also has a respectable Metacritic score of 80, which Galvatron is pleased with.
"Being nominated in The Game Awards and all that sort of stuff against teams that are enormous and experienced and have hundreds of people working on them was amazing," he says. "There's five games in the art category, there's Deathloop and Resident Evil, and there's little Francis Vendetti shredding guitar next to them, that was amazing.
"I mean, just seeing it go all over the world, and my dad calls me up and he's streaming YouTube every day looking for new reviews and stuff in the game, it's super exciting."
The Artful Escape launched on the Nintendo Switch back in January, and porting the game to the platform presented Galvatron and the team, particularly his programmers, with another round of challenges.
"Obviously, there's some hardware constraints when you head over to Switch, but I think we got pretty close," he says. "There's this dance that you have to learn which is so scrupulous, trying to find every little graphical thing that you can turn off so you can save your framerate."
"It was tricky because the game is so visceral and even though it's a 2.5D game it's using every trick under the Unreal Engine hood," he explains. "The bloom is quite expensive, and god damn did I turn up that bloom."
The reception of The Artful Escape has set Beethoven & Dinosaur up so finely that it already has a new project in the works, but Galvatron can't tell us much about it just yet.
"It's the same team that brought you The Artful Escape, but it's not a sequel," Galvatron grins conclusively. "With a couple of... newly hired criminal assassins."