Tom Grochowiak is the “owner” and usual face of MoaCube, the makers of 2012’s Cinders and 2016’s Solstice. He responded to my Novel Ties about MoaCube and I leveraged that into an opportunity to speak with him over Discord. (This is a great job.)
Could you start by saying what you consider your role at MoaCube? It’s a collective but you’re the de facto leader, I think.
Yeah, more or less. I started MoaCube with Gracjana (our artist), so legally speaking I’m the owner of the company. But mostly it’s just that I’m our game designer/programmer so I end up putting everything together. Cinders was generally my vision and design (but Gracjana’s idea), so I acted as a director for it.
The art and story really feel right together in Cinders.
Solstice was concepted and directed by our writers — Agnieszka and Hubert. I started just coding for them, but ultimately had to do some directing stuff to make sure it gets released. I still consider it their game. Thanks. We have really good rapport with Gracjana.
You’ve said that you made your own engine so you could use GameMaker to make visual novels. Did you use that same engine for both Cinders and Solstice?
Yup. It’s the same framework, just expanded and made easier to use for Solstice.
I know you took some issue with how I described things — I apologize for that, especially if it was an unkind surprise. But I’d love to know what stood out to you as not quite right.
Haha, that’s okay. Your article mostly made me realize we really stopped having a proper official channel of communication and I should fix that. I guess the most important thing is that we do work on two projects now, so it’s not like we got burned by reception to our games or something.
Yes, I want to hear about what you’re working on!
One project is secret at this point. I can only say that it’s not a visual novel (though fans of our VNs will find it familiar) and it’s the biggest game I worked on (not counting The Witcher). Oh, and Gracjana’s art will be as pretty as always!
Her art is seriously so beautiful.
The other project is one I started during Solstice development. First as a prototype made on a game jam. Then a sort of alpha-but-really-still-prototype. Then we re-worked it from grounds up with new art and storyline and now it’s nearing completion.
Yes — that’s Bonfire, right?
Yeah, Bonfire. It’s a battle roguelike about journey and failure. And some other things.
That sounds so right up my alley. Do you know when it will be available?
No idea. Since Solstice I’m very reluctant to declare release dates. But I want to make it available to folks who purchased the original alpha soon. The rest depends on their feedback.
Yes, that’s smart, and I’m interested in general in how devs decide what their release dates will be! The original alpha of Bonfire was a few years ago, I thought I saw that somewhere. Is that right?
Yup. For a while I worked on updating it step by step, but then realized that’s a wrong approach and decided to do a large make-over based on the feedback I got. Otherwise the game would just end up being played only by the few dedicated alpha testers, who would notice gradual changes. As for release dates — for Cinders it was easy: we had to get it out there before we starve. We actually released it a month before I’d have my electricity cut off due to unpaid bills (it happened once already, but I borrowed some money), so it was pretty serious. For Solstice we’ve made plans to release it within a year, because obviously we now know EVERYTHING about VN dev and can schedule it properly. Then we ended up taking 3 times as much. Now I just don’t declare anything unless I know for sure. At least till I’m starving again.
It seems like everybody has those super optimistic estimates even though they’re wrong every time! Even on the Autosave staff, we disagree in a big way about devs who go way over their time estimates. So most players aren’t judging harshly, I don’t think.
It’s true. We’re always humbled by how supportive fans are. But sense of obligation is a thing. Especially if you started accepting pre-orders (or did a Kickstarter) and then ended up not delivering the promised game on time. It’s a shitty thing to do even if people are understanding.
I did once ask for a Kickstarter refund for a novel that was like five years overdue. So it sounds like you’ve worked full time on MoaCube projects during all of this. Is that right?
Yeah, though I had a longer break due to health reasons. Which is probably why it seems we went silent. But MoaCube is a full time thing for me and only source of income.
Oh, yes, you mentioned that! I was sorry to hear it. I don’t know if Poland has socialized healthcare?
Yeah, we do. Though it’s a bit slow and underfunded. Still, even private healthcare has reasonable prices here to be “competitive” with the social one. But overall it’s okay — Gracjana has her commissions. Agnieszka is working part time in IT. Hubert is a LGBTQ+ activist and runs an organisation for civil partnerships in Poland. So they have something to do even when MoaCube stuff runs into a wall.
Does that mean you’re the only full time person?
We’re all close friends, so they have no problems waiting for me. I love them very much! Yeah, right now yeah. We were all full-time for Cinders and Solstice (with some exceptions here and there). Basically, it depends on if we have a project to focus on. And amount of work left. For instance, once art is done, I usually still have plenty of stuff left to do, so Gracjana gets back to her commissions.
It’s interesting, you’re using something like agile development model to pace out the work, so folks can work on other things when they’re less needed with you.
We all just share royalties from our games, so everyone’s payment is not dependent on whether they have something to do. This was a very important concept for us when we started MoaCube. Actual independence — both in the “indie” sense and in not being restricted by the office-style work, NDAs, non-compete clauses, etc.
Who owns the assets and stuff associated with your games?
Me, or my company to be precise. But intellectual property works differently in EU. You can’t cede your authorship to anyone. You can only license someone to use your work, which is required by Steam and law in general.
Oh that’s really interesting and cool! Okay, I just have one last question. Where’s the best place for people to stay informed about MoaCube projects? Following you, following MoaCube on Steam, both?
That’s great. I’m so thrilled to hear you’ve got new projects coming up! That’s the silver lining of this, for me. Roguelikes are my favorite genre, moreso even than VNs, so I feel like a gif that says “Take my money!”
Awesome! I never like my own stuff, but I’m really happy with Bonfire, even if it’s like my hobby project. Or maybe that’s the reason. It ended up being a weirdly personal game.
Ha, at Autosave it’s the same way. I’m a professional writer at my day job, but my colleagues are new to it and they love to hate their own stuff! I’m trying to make everyone understand how good they are. Personal in what way?
I think it’s something all creatives struggle with — being critical of their work to the point where they can’t actually evaluate it. Bonfire is personal in many ways; from gameplay to story. It started as a prototype I did for myself alone. Then it moved to being a hobby. Then an actual, larger project. Step by step, as I added or expanded things, it became a game about something else entirely (aside from getting your ass handed to you by monsters). Maybe because the entire team is just me and my partner, so we ended putting a lot of our recent experiences into it.
We get our asses handed to us by psychological or emotional monsters in real life.
Yeah, well it IS about journey AND failure after all.
For me, that’s one reason roguelikes are so good. You can’t just line up strategies to work through everything in one fell swoop.
Yeah, you sorta play with the cards you’ve been dealt. And often it’s a pretty shitty hand. So strategies are made on the fly. And then you lose anyway.